Halffter: Carmen (CD review)

Mark Fitz-Gerald, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572260.

Almost everyone knows Georges Bizet's Carmen, or at least a good many folks would recognize the most-popular tunes from Bizet's opera. But how many people have heard of the Spanish composer Ernesto Halffter (1905-1989), let alone heard his own musical take on the Carmen story? That's where Naxos comes in with this première recording of Halftter's score for Jacques Feyder's 1926 silent film Carmen, with Mark Fitz-Gerald leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Halffter was a friend of Manuel de Falla, Garcia Lorca, and Salvador Dali, having come up through that generation of writers, composers, and artists. Despite the modernism springing up all around him, though, his work in Feydor's film sounds fairly traditional. Much of it is more headstrong than Bizet's music, if less melodic, less inventive, and less rapturous. It is highly reminiscent of Albeniz, Stravinsky, and Ravel, with a little of Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol and Chabrier's Espana thrown in for good measure.

The booklet note indicates that to date filmmakers have made over eighty film versions of Carmen, based either on Prosper Merimee's novella or Bizet's opera, with over half them silent versions. Remarkable. Halffter's rendering of the accompanying music begins with a brief introduction titled Anime that certainly is just that: animated.  It represents the male lead, Don Jose, running to his mother's house, pursued by the authorities. Then, Halffter follows it with a lovely and evocative movement marked Modere that has overtones of Debussy throughout. You can already tell from these two opening numbers that this is going to be a score highly influenced by every popular composer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Still, that's OK because the result is pleasantly rhythmic and tuneful, with plenty of atmosphere. Each section, of which there are seventeen, evokes a part of the story or its characters and does so in often strikingly vivid fashion.

"The Change of the Guard," for instance, has an appropriately military cadence to it; the smuggler's camp comes tinged with mystery; the bullfight is fittingly exciting; and much of the music is just as dramatic, here and there. Indeed, Halffter's music is probably more dramatic than Bizet's (or in some cases more melodramatic), and it certainly seems to follow the original story as closely or more so. This would appear to be because filmmaker Feyder wanted to follow the story more closely than Bizet and his librettists did, and the music for the film had to follow suit.

Halffter said in a 1926 interview that "I used old regional themes, Andalusian themes, whose local colour is obvious even to the uninitiated. I followed the film's rhythm and atmosphere step by step, ensuring that the intensity of the musical drama did not swamp the on-screen drama, because you must never forget that the music must be no more than an accompaniment. I found that Feyder is a sensitive and intelligent artist. We collaborated very closely, and I hope that the score will be worthy of the work which inspired it."

As this is the one and only recording of Halffter's score, we're going to have to assume that conductor Fitz-Gerald and his orchestra gave it to us as the composer intended. Surely, I wouldn't argue with them, and there is no doubting they play the music sympathetically enough. If anything, however, these little snippets of film music, as interesting as they are individually, are a bit random and tend to get somewhat repetitious after a time, no matter what the conductor and orchestra do to liven things up. I suspect that a twenty or thirty-minute suite would have served the music just as well as the sixty-six minutes we have here, except for those listeners who are absolute completists and must have every note the composer wrote. In any case, with a CD player one can always pick and choose what one wants to play.

The sound, which Naxos recorded partly in the studio and partly live in 2008, is fairly typical of what we have come to expect from this source. It is smooth and easy on the ear, yet without making it to the audiophile class. What defines the sound may be easier summed up by what it isn't: It isn't quite transparent enough, dynamic enough, or extended enough to be positively first-rate. Nevertheless, it is entirely serviceable, with no glaring faults. While the imaging could be more pronounced and the bass deeper, the instrumental delineation is reasonably natural, the stereo spread wide, and the transient response impressive in more than a few places.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa