Mark Fitz-Gerald

Ernesto Halffter: Carmen

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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.

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