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John J Puccio
Classical Candor, November 2018

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. © 2018 Classical Candor  Read complete review

Karl Lozier
Positive Feedback Online, July 2012

Carmen’s sensuous dances are a good start and then you have to start using your imagination if you have not seen this film. The audio quality is outstanding being clean, clear and wide ranging starting with very deep bass response. Audiophiles can start with track five (Real Fabrica de Tabacos) as a good example for full clean bass drum thwacks naturally, not exaggeratedly recorded. I personally consider much of this music impressionistic. Track fifteen (Paso Doble Brillante) contains particularly picturesque, melodic and appealing passages. As might be guessed, the last track is “Mort de Carmen.” For something a bit different, I can highly recommend this fine CD and newcomers might enjoy figuring out the visual action that is being musically described. © 2012 Positive Feedback Online Read complete review

Cinemusical, January 2012

HALFFTER, E.: Carmen [film score] (Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Fitz-Gerald) 8.572260
HUPPERTZ, G.: Metropolis (Strobel) C5066

Best Golden Age Releases of 2011

The oldest of these is Gottfried Huppertz fascinating score for Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in a fully-restored and lovingly performed release on Capriccio…The music is filled with a fascinating blend of modernism, Romanticism, and is a great window on the styles of music popular at the time of the film’s release. The release of a 1926 score for Carmen by Ernesto Halffter on Naxos is also a great example of early original film scoring. It was quite a surprise to get two such treasures in a single year. © 2012 Cinemusical Read complete review

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, September 2011

What we…have in Halffter’s score, as prepared and re-created here by conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald, is a colorful, authentically Andalusian panorama. In its textures, stamping Spanish rhythms, and frequent use of the Phrygian mode—both melodically and harmonically—the score this Carmen most resembles is Manuel de Falla’s ballet The Three-Cornered Hat. Falla was a personal friend and mentor to Halffter, and a lifelong musical influence; the younger man spent many years completing Falla’s unfinished oratorio Atlántida. Halffter was commissioned to write music for Feyder’s film following the success of his Sinfonietta at the ripe old age of 21, and clearly he took the opportunity to get the undigested Falla out of his system. The jota rhythms in the “Danse de Carmen” are the closest to The Three-Cornered Hat, but I also hear a few direct quotations from other composers: a chord sequence out of Debussy’s Nuages on muted strings, and a recurring theme in fourths straight from the opening of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (which would have been a mere one year old at the time).

Comparisons aside, this is a lush, melodic, and enjoyable discovery. Like most complete film scores it occasionally hangs fire, but not often, and Halffter’s orchestral mastery is the equal of the contemporaries he so admired. Among many memorable moments are a “Paso Doble Brilliante” and a relatively lengthy section titled “Real Fábrica de Tabacos.” The recording supplies exhaustive notes on both the score and the making and subsequent history of the movie, plus an indexed synopsis of the plot. Feyder went back to Prosper Mérimée’s original novella for inspiration, so the storyline differs markedly from that of Bizet’s opera. For instance, Carmen is already married throughout the entire escapade (a substantial portion of the film concerns her one-eyed Gypsy husband, García), Don José deserts the army and joins the brigands, and the toreador is named Lucas, not Escamillo. Micaela makes no appearance.

This performance by the Frankfurt orchestra is colorful and committed, and winningly recorded. Mining the many forgotten byways of music, Naxos has come up with another sparkling gem.

Mark Koldys
American Record Guide, July 2011

The Frankfurt players give a solid performance under Marc Fitz-Gerald, who also worked on the reconstruction of the score. The recording is an amalgam of studio sessions and a public showing of the film with Fitz-Gerald conducting. The transitions are nearly seamless, and the audio is natural and ungimmicked if a bit distant.

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

John Suinier
Audiophile Audition, May 2011

The Mérmimée story of the gypsy femme fatale engendered a remarkable number of Carmen films—mostly made during the silent era, when it was a big thing to do silent features based on various operas, strange as it seems. This score now takes its place as one of the great impressionistic Spanish masterpieces of the era, created and performed by an orchestra to accompany a 1926 production of Carmen by Jacques Feyder.

Halffter, who lived until 1989, was a disciple of Falla and also studied with both Ravel and Stravinsky. There are 17 cues from the score here, mostly quite short except for two running 11 and 12 minutes length. The music is more tragic-sounding and serious than Bizet’s for his opera, but stands almost its equal as far as musical quality. This is its premiere recording and the first time any performance of the music has realized the composer’s full intentions. The strong emotions of the story, which Bizet communicated very well in his opera, are here given even more powerful strength in some ways, using entirely instrumental means. Some stills from the silent film in the booklet elicit an interest in seeing the actual film. Since most people have some familiarity with Bizet’s opera, it makes it easier following along with the music and the basic story. Perhaps someone will issue it on a DVD married to this excellent recorded performance, as has been done with several silent-era scores. (Some have even featured the original silent-era score plus an option for a new version created especially for the DVD reissue.)

MusicWeb International, April 2011

This world premiere recording of Ernesto Halffter’s score to Jacques Feyder’s 1926 silent film Carmen is released by Naxos in its sporadic Film Music Classics series. It is difficult to say whether such a designation will encourage or discourage potential listeners—the term ‘film music’ does tend to conjure up the insipid, cliché-ridden semi-minimalist scores of modern-day Hollywood of the type churned out by Hans Zimmer.

But Halffter’s score comes from a different age, before craft became the new art. On the evidence of this disc, the music almost certainly made the film, despite the fact that Halffter regarded his score as secondary material. In his own words: “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.” But this music is far more than mere accompaniment—in essence it is a ballet, an organic suite of musical scenes telling a story, succeeding aesthetically very well without any visual representation. Halffter’s achievement here is all the more remarkable for the fact that he wrote the epic score at the age of 21, his very first film commission…of many over the following decades. By way of curious historical footnote, Halffter began work ten years later on a Spanish-language opera entitled The Death of Carmen—yet it was to lie unfinished when he died more than fifty years later.

Feyder’s version is a fairly accurate rendering of the original 1845 novella by French writer Prosper Mérimée, and thereby bears little structural resemblance to Bizet’s famous opera, whose librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, had eviscerated Mérimée’s work for supposed artistic reasons. In the original, for example, Carmen has a husband!

Nevertheless, in both versions, Carmen herself is a fatalistic, narcissistic Gypsy (Roma), and the same themes of passion, violence and tragedy recur. Allowing for the half a century gap between the two scores, both Carmens are banquets of powerful, poignant, sensual music, sprinkled liberally with local colour—old Andalusian tunes, in Halffter’s case. From the very beginning, the music brings to mind the colours and expressiveness of Manuel de Falla, who was Halffter’s teacher and a lifelong influence—Halffter’s controversial realisation of Falla’s great unfinished cantata, Atlántida, brought him an international reputation.

But Halffter’s style is his own—an original, imaginative voice, even at this early point in his career. The writing in Carmen is basically tonal and melodic; its many and extended impressionistic passages are frequently reminiscent of Debussy and Ravel—and there are indeed fleeting, fond references in the score to their music, which Halffter much admired.

The CD booklet gives excellent value, assuming provision is made for the requisite magnifying glass to read the diminutive print—a bumper 15 sides of notes. There is an essay on Halffter and his music, and for those who want it, a synopsis of the film itself, linked section by section to Halffter’s music. The score apparently disappeared after the film premiere and remained lost until only a decade ago, when it was rediscovered in France and partially reconstructed in the context of the newly restored film.

The booklet also provides a long essay on the Carmen film, relating it to other versions—strictly superfluous but nevertheless an engrossing read for cinema fans. It is written by Phil Powrie, Professor of Cinema at the University of Surrey, who has published a number of books on Carmen as a cultural phenomenon. Powrie also provides an English translation of a 1926 interview with Halffter, recorded while he was still working on the score.

Finally there is a note by conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald on the issues that needed to be addressed for a performance of the score, particularly the ambiguities and inconsistencies of the copyists—there is no autograph—and the fact that there are only sixty-odd minutes of music for a film that was nearly three hours in length. Fitz-Gerald believes that this performance is a realisation of Halffter’s “full musical intentions” for the very first time—even for the film premiere the composer was forced to make compromises with the unsuitably small orchestra placed at his disposal.

The booklet is also visually attractive—the front cover is mainly taken up with a colour reproduction of the original advertising poster for the film’s Berlin premiere, and inside there is a full-page photo of Spanish actress Raquel Meller, who played Carmen in the film—again, strictly speaking unnecessary, but perhaps adding a little extra flavour to one’s appreciation of the music.

Oddly, the recording is a mixture of studio and live sound—with an occasional muffled audience sneeze thrown in. No explanation is given in the notes as to why, but it could be that Fitz-Gerald was conducting the orchestra live to a showing of the film—an art that Fitz-Gerald now specialises in, drawing on his experience conducting opera orchestras. In any case, the editing is seamlessly done, and the overall sound quality is excellent. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra put in a sterling performance under Fitz-Gerald’s capable baton.

Halffter’s son, Manuel, maintains a website dedicated to Ernesto’s memory and music. This CD is a laudable addition to the growing discography., April 2011

A lesser discovery that gets a (+++) rating, the music to the 1926 silent film Carmen by Ernesto Halffter (1905–1989) is appropriately dark and doom-laden, but rather one-dimensionally so. Halffter—whose older brother, Rodolfo, was also a composer of some talent—here produces a series of snippets, many lasting under two minutes and a few less than one, designed to illustrate scenes from Jacques Feyder’s movie, which follows essentially the same course as Bizet’s opera. The story of the seductive gypsy girl has plenty of elements of both fantasy and fairy tale, and its appeal as the basis for a movie is not at all difficult to understand. Presumably the music, which here receives its première recording, highlighted the various scenes appropriately and heightened the intended effects of the story on the audience. But as music, although it is certainly well-constructed and atmospheric, it is not always particularly interesting. By the time the fifth section marked “Mystérieux” comes along (actually, two of them are marked “Triste et mystérieuse”), the point has been abundantly made and over-made: sadness and mystery abound here. There is a certain amount of exoticism, too, and appropriate emotional heightening for “Mort de Carmen” at the end. But heard on its own, the music has only a modicum of emotional impact. Mark Fitz-Gerald leads the Frankfurt Radio Symphony with aplomb, and the CD will certainly be of interest to movie buffs and fans of silent films, whose music could be so crucial to storytelling (as opposed to today’s movie music, whose main purpose is to redouble whatever emotion the director puts into a scene).

Frank Behrens
Art Times, April 2011

Yes, it is a good thing when music with a strong historical interest is also a pleasure to hear! Take the case of a recent CD from Naxos that contains 17 extracts from the score to a 1926 silent film version of “Carmen.” The program notes give a count of about 80 film versions—including adaptations and perversions—of the tale of the Gypsy femme fatale. Some are based on the opera scenario, some on the original story by Prosper Merimee. (“A Burlesque on Carmen,” made in 1916 with Charlie Chaplin as Darn Hosiery, specifically spoofs the Cecil B. DeMille version of the story made the year before with Metropolitan Opera star Geraldine Farrar in the leading role of this silent film.)

Readers can find much more than they really want to know about these films in “Carmen on Film, a Cultural History” (Indiana University Press, 2007) by Phil Powrie and others.

Being this as it may, Ernesto Halffter—who studied with DeFalla, Stravinsky and Ravel—was hired to do the background music for the 1926 film, which would be played on large phonograph discs at the movie houses. Avoiding the temptation to merely rearrange Bizet’s score, Halffter composed a lovely score that can be heard on its own terms as abstract mood music. Of course, it is so much more meaningful if the listener is aware of what is on the film as each track plays. (Some conjecture was used by those preparing the program notes concerning which scenes were accompanied by which music in several cases.)

On this world premiere recording, Mark Fitz-Gerald conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. The running time is 67 minutes.

Cinemusical, March 2011

Prosper Merimee’s 1845 novella Carmen is perhaps one of France’s most popular 19th century stories. Immortalized first by Bizet’s operatic treatment, in the 20th 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.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2011

In many ways I am sorry this disc is being issued with the ‘Film Music’ tag, as it is symphonic music that could stand beside many ballet suites. The disc’s booklet tells of Ernesto Halffter’s meteoric rise to international fame as a composer, having been a student of Manuel de Falla. He was to remain an advocate of tonal music with the rhythmic vivacity and colours of Ravel and Stravinsky. In the mid 1920’s he composed a score to accompany the famous silent film based on Prosper Mérimée’s novel, Carmen. It was played just the once at the film premiere in 1926, though how that was achieved is not clear. The score was then ‘lost’ and only unearthed ten years ago when the film was restored, the music and film again united. The book was, of course, the basis of Bizet’s opera, but it was significantly different in detail. Halffter wrote 17 pieces to match the action, carefully detailing the exact connection, with the total extending well beyond the hour. High in impact, very attractive at the appropriate points, and equally dramatic as the story unfolds towards its tragic conclusion. The present conductor, Mark Fitz-Gerald, gave two performances with the film in Berlin and Frankfurt, the present disc being the first performance to fully realise the composer’s original intentions. Some of the tracks were simply a few seconds of scene painting, but there are many of substantial length, the whole running parallel to a ballet without dancers. The Frankfurt orchestra play with such well-rehearsed conviction, and the sound engineering is of the first quality.

Stephen Eddins, March 2011

Ernesto Halffter (1905–1989) was only 21 when he was asked to write the score for Belgian-French director Jacques Feyder’s silent film, Carmen. Apparently the music was heard only once, at the film’s 1926 Paris premiere, and the composer considered it an ephemeral effort, but it emerges as an exceptionally attractive piece in this premiere recording with Mark Fitz-Gerald leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. What’s most striking about it is the brash assurance and mastery of the young composer; the music sounds more like the work of a seasoned professional than that of a novice. The orchestration is brilliant and frequently innovative, and the musical logic is entirely convincing even at its most unpredictable. Although its emotional tone is often fraught with the darkness and brutality characteristic of Merimée’s novella, there’s an almost breezy exhilaration in the inventive profligacy of the score. It’s very Spanish-sounding, in the tradition of de Falla, Halffter’s teacher, but Stravinsky was also a strong influence, and the piece is rife with Hispanic-flavored Rite of Spring-isms. Shamelessly direct quotations from Debussy, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, and de Falla pepper the score, often in contexts dramatically foreign to the originals, to astonishing and entertaining effect. Fitz-Gerald and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony turn in a rambunctious and technically polished account of the score, and the sound is clean and vivid. Halffter’s Carmen doesn’t sound quite like anything else, but it should interest fans of post-Romantic and Stravinskian modernist orchestral music.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group