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Carmen: Music for the 1926 Silent Film


CARMEN (Music for the 1926 Silent Film)

World Premiere Recording

Music composed by Ernesto Halffter

17 Tracks (Playing Time = 66:58)

Performed by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald. Album produced by Hans-Bernhard Batzing. Engineered by Rudiger Orth. Edited by Hans-Bernhard Batzing and Mark Fitz-Gerald. Recorded part live (at November 28 th concert) and in studio at the Sendesaal of Hessicher Rundfunk, Frankfurt, November 24-28, 2008. Liner notes by Graham Wade, Peter Bromley, Mark Fitz-Gerald, and Phil Powrie.

Naxos 8.572260

Rating: ****



Prosper Merimee’s 1845 novella CARMEN is perhaps one of France’s most popular 19 th century stories. Immortalized first by Bizet’s operatic treatment, in the 20 th Century it saw some 80 film versions some of which were adaptations of the opera, others which went back to the original story. Jacques Feyder’s 1926 film took a more interesting approach from the 30+ preceding film versions of CARMEN. Feyder shot much of the film using authentic locations instead of studio sets giving the film the sort of realism critics of the time found captivating. The film premiered in November of 1926 and, being a silent film, was accompanied by a score written by Ernesto Halffter (brother of fellow composer Rodolfo).

Halffter’s score brings a contemporary feel to the film with its musical language firmly paralleling the Impressionists and more open harmonies that are less chromatic than Late Romanticism. Surely Halffter’s ears had taken in some of the musical avant-garde of Stravinsky’s Ballets Russe works to heart. The latter is heard in the scoring of “Real Fabrica de Tabacos” (a sort of Stravinsky meets Debussy) and in the interesting rhythmic approach in ”Danse de Carmen.” The opening tracks of the CD, “Anime” and “Modere,” set the tone for many later Spanish-flavored musical impressionist sounds that are reminiscent of Manuel De Falla—the composer’s teacher. Of the many beautiful melodic ideas in the score, one of its most wonderful is a “Pesante” with a colorful melody and a later dialogue between strings and bassoon that is quite fun. What is most fascinating is the way Halffter moves from Spanish-flavored rhythms, and even melodic contours, to more intense dramatic sounds that are less rich and often stripped bare. This movement between a post-Ravelian harmonic richness, flirtations with a sound approaching the composer’s who became Les Six, coupled with ethnic rhythms reminiscent of Stravinsky’s work in this period, make CARMEN a truly fascinating listen. Also worth noting is that Halffter manages to avoid a score that is entirely “Spanish” instead creating music that more often contemporizes the story for audiences of the period while hinting at the ethnicity of its storyline.

The score was first heard at the film’s premiere. It is likely that this was its only performances having been unearthed a decade ago. Portions of the music may have accompanied the film for future performances, though these would have been likely piano reductions, as was the practice. More likely, theater pianists simply adapted Bizet’s more familiar music to the film along with stock accompaniments.

Conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald notes that in his performances of the score to film the problem is that often there was not enough music for a specific sequence and occasionally too much. The reconstruction for this recording attempts to put it all together as a whole, making this essentially a world premiere of the complete score. As with his recordings of rare Shostakovich film scores, his dedicated approach and attention to detail are what make this recording standout. The Frankfurt orchestra is on fine display, especially its winds, capturing the essence of this music. The performance is also able to move from the crisper orchestration to the more Impressionistic blurs with fascinating ease helping to make those musical moments even more effective for the listener.

Naxos production is about as top notch as you can get. The accompanying booklet features programming notes that manage to summarize Halffter’s life, include a brief interview with the composer from the period, outline the plot of the film and how the tracks fit in, discuss the performance issues, and much more.

The recording itself is a blend of live and studio recording which no doubts lends itself to some of the edginess and excitement of portions of the score requiring it. The 2008 recordings may have needed some extra equalizing as well, which has paid off with a recording that at times is only a bit too ambient, but otherwise is simply gorgeous. There are plenty of self-contained sequences here that would work well as a multi-selection “suite” from the film to gain a wider audience for this engaging score.

Overall, Halffter’s CARMEN Is one of the first real great issues of older film music this year and comes highly-recommended.


-- Steven A. Kennedy, 27 March 2011

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