EL-KHOURY: New York, Tears and Hope / The Rivers Engulfed (Daniel Harding/ Dimitri Vassilakis/ Hideki Nagano/ James Mallinson/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Martyn Brabbins) (Naxos: 8.570134)
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Bechara El-Khoury (b.1957)
New York Tears and Hope • Les Fleuves engloutis • Sextuor • Waves • Fragments oubliés
Bechara El-Khoury was born in Beirut in 1957. He started his musical studies in Lebanon with Hagop Arslanian, then moved to Paris in 1979 to further his training as a composer with Pierre-Petit, the then director of the Ecole Normale de Musique founded by Alfred Cortot. When he decided to settle in Paris, he already had behind him a twin reputation as a composer, with some hundred works written between 1969 and 1978, and as a poet, with several collections published from 1971 onwards, as well as a solid career as pianist, conductor and Kapellmeister, and a contributor to the press. An important concert of his works was given on 9 December 1983 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris by the Colonne Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Dervaux, as part of the centenary commemoration of the Lebanese-American philosopher and poet Khalil Gibran. In 1987 El-Khoury took French nationality. His works have been played by ensembles as distinguished as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, the Colonne Orchestra (Paris), the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and the Orchestre National de Montpellier.
On 25 May 2006 his Violin Concerto, Aux frontières de nulle part (On the Frontiers of Nowhere), Op. 62, was performed for the first time at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, by the violinist Sarah Nemtanu with the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Kurt Masur.
In his youth Bechara El-Khoury lived through the terrible war in the Lebanon and in memory of this dark period composed a musical trilogy of particular emotional intensity, Symphonic Poem No. 1 'The Lebanon in Flames', the Requiem 'To the Lebanese Martyrs of the War' [Naxos 8.557691], and the Symphony 'The Ruins of Beirut' [Naxos 8.557043].
In the opinion of many commentators at the time, 11 September 2001 opened a new era in our history, full of uncertainties, of chaos and anguish. The illusion of "the end of history" engendered in 1989 by the fall of the Berlin Wall was only a short, optimistic interlude in the full progression of the sufferings of humanity.
El-Khoury, the man and the artist, could only feel overwhelmed by the New York tragedy. With New York Tears and Hope (2001-2005) he follows the tracks of his great predecessors Martinů, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Penderecki and Nono, who knew how to bear witness in their music to the emotion excited by the worst violence of modern barbarism, and to re-affirm the place that the composer can and must hold in the city. In this work El-Khoury takes a humanistic perspective that pays homage to civilian, innocent and chance victims of the attack on the Twin Towers.
The general expressive contour of the work extends across a succession of states, describing desolation, revolt, affliction, sorrow and hope. This composition can be seen as a threnody, a meditative lament, made up of extended lyrical phrases, disturbed by outbursts that translate indignation, sorrow and exasperation in face of the inadmissible. In the opening section, Misterioso, neutral and cold fifths, played in the upper register by the violins, at first partly coloured by the mysteriously resonant, intermittent fifth of the piano and the harp, then supported in the lower register by the other strings, symbolize the hardening of feeling after the terrible event, giving the impression of the emptiness of space. Then a first phrase stated twice by the violins recalls in its bareness, the empty landscapes dear to Finnish composers such as Sibelius and Rautavaara. A short first tutti, Drammatico, over a D pedal, with dissonances of a minor second and horn glissandi, a simultaneous evocation of the brutality and savagery of the event and a manifestation of anger, introduces over a throbbing iambic (short-long) rhythm a long phrase, Lirico, sung in octaves by the violins, expressions of the feelings of man and artist in the face of the incomprehensible. These two opposing ideas are repeated, presented in varied form in the course of a long episode, darkly dramatic in character, which is dominated by the obsessive iambic rhythm. After a silence, a Mahlerian gesture in glissandi in the violins, marked Doloroso, a true cry of suffering, introduces the final Espressivo section that returns to the original static mood. This time the violins in G sharp octaves are as if fixed in the upper register, while cellos and double basses respond to them in the lower register with F naturals in violent tremolos. A short coda, Solennel, in A flat major, brings a final light, a ray of hope in this tragic meditation.
The orchestral composition Les Fleuves engloutis (The Rivers Engulfed) (2001) has its origin in a challenge offered by Radio France to a number of composers for a series of radiophonic programmes under the title Alla breve. For this the composers had to write a work of about ten minutes, comprising five sections each of which was to reflect, in miniature form, a particular state of the piece within the work as a whole. The idea was to to broadcast one of the five parts repeatedly each day of the week. The aim was to allow the progressive entry of listeners into the complete work through repeated hearings. The work was repeated complete at the weekend in the course of several broadcasts, this time continuously. The intention was to familiarise the public with the variety of forms and styles of contemporary musical expression, and in doing so achieve a wider audience.
Of this commission from Radio France the composer has said: 'Les Fleuves engloutis is a work that speaks of the love between people and of peace in our world. The rivers represent the human being who passes through life like a star travelling through eternal space. Man, like Jesus, a being of suffering, of strength and of hope, transcends life. This is a work against racism and xenophobia, against dictatorship and death, that sets Man against himself.'
The five parts are strongly connected and unified by the use of shared melodic and rhythmic materials.
In the first piece, Brouillard (Fog) El-Khoury establishes a correspondence with the symbolic order between the physical nature of fog and the loss of moral and spiritual points of reference, which he sees as the origin of the confusion and menace that weigh down on humanity. A theme in the lower register from the bassoons and horns marks off the central section that evolves through impressionistic touches of chords or the minimalist motif of a second (ascending or descending) over an iambic rhythm. This section allows the appearance, conscious or not, of Debussy's influence (fourths and fragments of the whole-tone scale) and that of Koechlin (refined and static orchestral sonorities, divided chords, harmonics).
The Chant du silence (Song of Silence) is a moment of meditation, of solitude and of silence, space for reflection. Over sustained string chords a clarinet tune gradually develops from the fundamental materials of the work. The melody continues later with the oboe and