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Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, November 2011

These four pieces are suitably cinematographic and vivid in their conjuring of atmosphere. The Preludio and Fantasia Tragica—the latter a Shostakovich tribute—are all about atmosphere rather than thematic allure. These paint in a mood and are moody yet without any strong melodic identity. The mien is equivalent to a concentrated piece such as Bax’s Northern Ballad No. 2 but with the original themes leached away.

Notte di Tempesta holds the interest with a much tighter grip. It is tensely reflective yet gentle at first. Soon a grand comber of an idea surges up (4:40) before being released in a furious storm. It is a vivid late-romantic piece and some of its ideas seem to be casting sideways glances at Debussy’s La Mer. This is not up there with Nystroem’s and Sibelius’s Tempest preludes of Britten’s Grimes’ Storm but it is worth remembering. At its peak it is reminiscent of Bax’s more stormy tone poems such as November Woods and Tintagel.

The chuckling and vivacious Burlesca is the most successful piece here. It recalls another aspect of Bax—his swooning strings and brass-writing in the frothy light overtures such as Overture to a Picaresque Comedy. It’s also a reminder of the overtures of Coates and Haydn Wood.

Those last two pieces are more memorable than the other two though everything here is at least intriguing. Read complete review

Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, November 2011

All are tonal, neoromantic, attractive, and cinematic.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, August 2011

Italian-born and trained, Franco Ferrara (1911–1985) was one of Italy’s most promising conductors. But his concert hall appearances ended in 1946 when he began suffering from what may have been a psychosomatic disorder that was never satisfactorily diagnosed (see the informative album notes for further details). He then turned to conducting studio recordings that included soundtracks for some of Italy’s legendary films, to wit La strada (1954) and La dolce vita (1960).

However, he was to make an even greater contribution to the world of classical when in the early 1960s he began giving conducting classes. He became the “maestro dei maestri” (“maestro of maestros”), who would eventually have over six hundred students, among them such greats as Riccardo Muti (b. 1941), Sir Andrew Davis (b. 1944), Myung-Whun Chung (b. 1953) and Riccardo Chailly (b. 1953).

An excellent violinist and pianist too, Ferrara was also a prolific composer, four of whose orchestral works make their recorded debut on this enterprising release from Naxos. With only forty-seven minutes playing time, this disc is not exactly a Filene’s Basement bargain, but the Naxos bill of fare and music’s desirability make up for it.

The concert begins with two grief-stricken selections. Preludio (no date given) is a moving lament of cinematic intensity. While Fantasia tragica (c. 1962) could be considered a baleful tone poem bearing more than a passing resemblance to the third “In memoriam” movement from Shostakovich’s (1906–1975) The Year 1905 Symphony (No. 11, 1957).

Equally as powerful as the Shostakovich, at one point [track-2, beginning at 04:48] the fantasia may bring some of Bernard Herrmann’s (1911–1975) monster music…to mind. There’s also a fragmentary reference in a minor key [track-2, beginning at 09:50] to the principal theme from the slow movement of Haydn’s Emperor Quartet (Op. 76, No. 3, c. 1799).

In 1922 this would become the melody for the German National Anthem, commonly known today as “Deutschland über Alles.” Accordingly it probably signifies the tragic consequences World War II (1939–1945) and the German occupation of Italy (1943–45) had on that country.

The symphonic poem Notte di tempesta (Night of the Tempest, no date given) is next. Brilliantly orchestrated and of cinematic temperament, one can imagine the opening measures limning a beautiful sunset and summer evening. But dark clouds soon gather, unleashing a tempest with howling winds accompanied by flashing percussion and brass.

The storm gradually abates in passages that seem to take their cue from Wagner (1813–1833), and culminate in a heroic idea reminiscent of “The Sword Motif” from the Ring cycle (1869–1876) [track-3, beginning at 11:29]. Ferrara builds this into a towering, chorale-like climax somewhat reminiscent of the “Hymn to the Great City” that concludes Glière’s ballet (1875–1956) The Bronze Horseman (1948–49). The piece then ends in a valorous euphoric coda.

The mood lightens even more with the final selection, Burlesca of 1932. An engaging ten-minute scherzoesque gem, its whimsical outer sections feature some fetching thematic material, and recall lighter moments in Respighi…and Casella…The comely lyrical central section will sweep you off your feet.

Conductor Francesco La Vecchia and the Rome Symphony Orchestra follow their acclaimed survey of Casella’s symphonies with this equally impressive disc of Ferrara’s music. Despite an occasionally queasy horn, Maestro La Vecchia elicits emotionally charged performances of these pieces that never become romantic wallows.

Made at two different locations in Rome, the recordings are well matched, presenting wide soundstages in suitably resonant venues. All the details of this Technicolor music come through with crystal clarity, but at the cost of an orchestral timbre slanted towards the high end.

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, August 2011

The Naxos album begins with Preludio, a brief piece as the title would indicate. It starts out slowly in an almost meandering manner most of the way and then proceeds into a full-blown rhapsody before it’s over. Maestro Francesco La Vecchia caresses it delicately and provides a sweet reading, which because of its rather traditional nature makes a suitable introduction to the rest of the music on the disc.

Fantasia tragica…opens with a slow, enigmatic introduction, builds through a series of conflicts and crescendos, and evolves into a tragic climax.

Notte di tempesta (“Stormy Night”)…is one filled with heightened emotional passages…with colorful, pictorial writing abounding in every line. La Vecchia seems to be enjoying this one best, a kind of dramatic romp for him, ending again in a fairly exultant cinematic fashion.

The program concludes with Ferrara’s most playful music of all, the youthful Burlesca from 1932. With this one, both Ferrara and La Vecchia are having fun. It provides a joyful end to an album that began on a far more serious note. The music has all the lightness of a popular song and might be describing a sunny stroll around the streets, fountains, and parks of Rome.

Recorded at the OSR Studios and the Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome, in 2008, the sound is round, soft, and ultrasmooth, with an adequate but not distinguished breadth, depth, and dynamic range.

V. Vasan, August 2011

If you haven’t heard of Franco Ferrara, you should. A 20th century conductor and composer, Ferrara’s sensibility draws on Russians like Shostakovich, while still capturing a dramatic, operatic, Italian feel. His Preludio is initially melancholy and beautifully moody. Textures and shapes emerge from the music, with sweetness in the violins. The music grows loud, but never loses its sense of phrasing and shape, thanks to the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under the baton of Francesco La Vecchia. Ferrara’s Fantasia tragica is barely audible in the beginning, as it is so quiet, eerie, and tragic as it evolves. The entry of brass is exciting. Very foreboding, it reminds the listener a bit of Sibelius or Shostakovich (Ferrara’s source of inspiration). In fact, it might leave the listener with a clear answer of what sort of music one would get if heavy Verdi and Italian drama were crossed with the style of Northern European and Russian composers. The tonally fascinating Notte di tempesta features great colors in the orchestra: high string tremolos, the flute paired with the bass clarinet, and rolling timpani. The menacing passages that move up and down the scale in the low strings are like waves, played with excellent precision by the Orchestra Sinfonica. One is swept away by the waves, the roar, the swells, the thunder. A tightly knit, chorale-like passage is an interesting contrast to the stormy music. The lushness of the strings recalls string orchestra music such as that of Vaughan Williams. The ending is rich, with the strings paired with the warm brass. The last piece on the album, Burlesca, is warm and inviting, very accessible like a film score. One might conjure a Harry Potter film or 1950s films when hearing the music. The beginning is whimsical, with string pizzicato, flute leaps and jumps, and a tinkling triangle. Engaging dialogues between the instruments are complemented by sweeping strings. There is a strong contrast between the warmer passages and a dark, menacing theme, proof that Ferrara knew how to keep dramatic tension in the music. Ferrara should become a household name, especially when played beautifully by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma.

David Hurwitz, July 2011

Franco Ferrara (1911–85) probably was the most renowned conducting teacher before Finland’s Jorma Panula. His brilliant early career ended due to a nervous condition that made it impossible for him to conduct in public (he developed a disconcerting tendency to pass out in mid-beat), but it didn’t stop him from teaching and working in the studio, where he participated in many noteworthy film projects. Hardly any young conductors in the 1960s and ’70s failed to list participation in one of his masterclasses on their resumes. He also composed abundantly in a colorful, conservative idiom, and while the music here won’t win any awards for originality, it is well worth hearing.

Perhaps the most remarkable piece here is the Fantasia tragica, a threnody so heavily influenced by the slow movement of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony that you might be forgiven for believing that it’s what you are listening to. The textures, the progress of the music, the extended climax (that goes on a bit too long) are all the same; only the tunes are different. It’s amazing. Notte di tempesta is exactly what the title says it is: a nocturne with a storm in the middle, while Burlesca is a glittering scherzo perhaps a bit in the style of Dukas.

Francesco La Vecchia and his orchestra will be familiar to readers from their recent, fine recordings of music by Casella. It’s great to see them branching out into the unexplored byways of modern Italian music, a terribly neglected field. The playing, as on those earlier releases, is a touch rough in spots, but excitingly so—never less than good, and in the end quite satisfying. The short playing time (46 minutes) is a bit of a shame. Surely there was room, if not time or money, for more music to be included, but the engineering is suitably vivid. A real curiosity, this, and eminently collectible.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2011

Posterity will know little of Franco Ferrara apart for the frequent appearance of his name in conductor biographies, for he was the mentor of a large swath of the great conductors who appeared in the second-half of the late 20th century. He had started life as a infant prodigy pianist, but had developed into one of the finest young Italian violinists before becoming the nation’s most gifted and sought after conductor. Sadly a physiological illness began to make public appearances very traumatic, though he was able to continue a very active career in the studio conducting a number of film scores. There followed a period where he taught conducting to young musicians who were already showing exceptional gifts on both sides of the Atlantic. As a taste of his performances he did leave a small number of symphonic recordings, though the world has known little or nothing of his compositions. He had, in fact, started writing music for the amusement of his parents at the age of four, and on this disc we go back to 1932, his twenty-first year, for the Burlesca, an orchestral romp, showing his skill in using orchestral forces. He was a composer totally committed to tonality, this work offering an ideal opening to a lighthearted symphony concert. Preludio is short and pleasing and contrasts with the dark Fantasia tragica, a piece in the footsteps of Shostakovich taking its inspiration from his Eleventh and Twelfth symphonies. Notte di tempesta is a vivid and extended orchestral picture of a violent storm that one can visualise taking place at sea. From every aspect this is the finest disc we have had from the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma with their conductor, Francesco La Vecchia. The playing is powerful and recorded with great clarity and presence. Most strongly recommended.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group