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 (available on CD - see review), 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.