Bechara El-Khoury was born in the war-torn city of
Beirut in 1957. His works can be considered an expression of his humanistic
beliefs based on Christian spirituality. He is also a poet, and was
a published composer and poet whilst still a student in France at the
Ecole-Normale de Musique. Since 1987 attracted by France’s Catholicism
and by the philosophical attitude inculcated in the Arts, he became
a French citizen. El-Khoury has been commissioned by bodies in France
and in the Lebanon, writing serious concert works and film music. He
has won various prizes, for example the ‘Prix des Arts et de la Culture’.
He has had performances all over Europe and in Russia. With this strong
pedigree it quite astonished me to realize that not only had I not even
come across him before but that he didn’t even feature in the Gramophone
catalogue. So three cheers and more to Naxos for allowing us an opportunity
in their excellent 21st Century series to get to know his very distinctive
sound-world, and all for less than a fiver.
My advice though would be to start not with the Symphony
which opens the CD but with the ‘Poème symphonique no.4’ entitled
‘Le vin de nuages’- ‘Wine of the Clouds’, because it is
this piece that seems to me to demonstrate the fusion between French
impressionism (or at least a French style which follows a line from
Debussy, through Messiaen and Dutilleux and now Grisey) and something
approaching an eastern European one. The style is difficult to pin down
but is something to do with melodic modality and dark harmonies sometimes
heard in the symphonies of the Turkish composer Ahmed Saygun (newly
released by CPO).
Composers who slip easily into writing film music are
not ideal symphonic composers. Ideas tend to be juxtaposed. Moods change
quickly. Large-scale development does not happen. Creating a mood or
atmosphere is a priority. When dealing with a tragic or tense story
the music can be mostly slow and moves around so that concentrated development
and gradually and logically achieved climaxes are not, necessarily,
a part of the composer’s technique. ‘The Ruins of Beirut’ Symphony
seems to me to fall into this category, especially the almost Schoenbergian
first movement. Its sudden bursts of volume, rage and speed are immediately
contrasted with long stretches of calm, so that a visual image seems
to be conjured up. Much of the disc is mostly slow and dramatic music.
The symphony does have a Scherzo marked Misterioso in
5 time. The slow Poetico is the heart of the symphony; its weeping
melodies and passionate, intense chords help you draw on a serried rank
of images seen in the 1980s when the city was experiencing its darkest
time. To cap it off the fourth movement ‘Tragique’ is a harsh
landscape of changing colours not without hope but liable to burst into
flames and proclaim a fierce march at any moment. An Old Testament world
of man’s injustice to man is summoned up. It is not comfortable listening,
but it is always arresting.
The remaining works on the CD are also mainly slow
meditations on given subjects. ‘Colline de l’étrange’
begins with a hushed, slowly building chord and then a sudden timpani
rhythm followed by a brazen brass fanfare and whooping horns … dramatic
stuff. The music subsides into string chords. This is "a journey
through fog pierced by glimpses of light" in much the same way
that ‘Harmonies crépusculaires’ is slow and sombre with
shattering brass interruptions. The work is dedicated to the memory
of the late French conductor Pierre Dervaux. Again, this is strong,
dramatic and visual music.
The recording is first rate and the orchestra are on
top form and seemingly well rehearsed.
So, to sum up: here is a composer with a gripping and
approachable voice who is well worth getting to know. We should remember
his name and mark his career.