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Bechara EL-KHOURY (b.1957)
Orchestral Works

CD1 Symphonic Works [76.35]
Danse pour orchestra Op. 9 "Danse des Aigles" (1980); Image Symphonique Op. 26 "Les dieux de la Terre" (1982); Suite Symphonique Op. 29 (1982) "La Nuit et le Fou"; Requiem for Orchestra Op. 18 (1980); Poème Symphonique No. 1 Op. 14 (1980); Poème Symphonique No. 2 "Le Regard du Christ" Op. 2 (1979)
Orchestre Colonne/Pierre Dervaux
Recorded in the church of Notre-Dame, Paris, September 1983
CD2 Concertos [65.57]
Meditation poètique for orchestra Op. 41 (1986); Concerto for piano and orchestra Op. 36 (1984); ‘Poème’ for piano and orchestra No. 1 Op. 11(1980); Poème for piano and orchestra No. 2 Op. 22 (1981); Serenade for string orchestra No. 1 ‘Feuilles d’Automne’ Op. 10 (1980); Serenade for string orchestra No. 2 Op. 20 (1981)
Orchestre Colonne/Pierre Dervaux
Abdel Rahman El Bacha and David Lively (pianos); Gérard Poulet (violin)
Recorded live at the Salle Pleyel, Paris, February and March 1986
FORLANE ARC 361 216762 [76.35+65.57]

It is a brave composer who allows his very earliest compositions to be exposed to public view in such a decisive way as on a CD easily available and reviewed. These pieces mostly date from the 1980s when El-Khoury was in his 20s and early 30s. Most composers are still developing their language at this age. There may well be inconsistency of style or standard, experiments sometimes fail to come off; they can be learnt from. This would be particularly so in the area of writing for orchestra. Fundamental problems of balance arise as do issues with the disposition of parts, special effects and logical lines. Technical problems peculiar to each instrument must be learnt … often empirically. So what is remarkable here is a young composer born in the Lebanon somewhat away from what is generally regarded as the mainstream of musical developments. He moves to Paris at eighteen or so and is, within a short time, a natural and prolific composer for the greatest instrument of all - the orchestra.

These early pieces show a considerable competence. Sometimes they are inspired - often sounding extremely mature. The language may not always be quite consistent but the technical standard and the composer’s ease in the use of the orchestra is masterly. All in all it’s quite clear why Bechara El-Khoury felt quite happy to release these 1980s recordings. Equally importantly one can quickly hear why orchestras and conductors were delighted to commission such music, put them on and spend time on these pieces.

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. His music manages to be both approachable and original.

This double CD set opens with an untypical work: his Opus 9, a Dance for orchestra of little more than two minutes. It is certainly reminiscent of eastern European music, perhaps Khachaturian is recalled or Ahmed Saygun. Anyway it is a good start. My only criticism is that it is too short and disappoints on those grounds alone.

As an example of stylistic dichotomy listen to the ‘Poème Number 1, for piano and orchestra’ Op 11. Here we find a melody, let’s call it a second subject although these epithets are not accurate when applied to this music, which is, as the booklet notes say, Oriental, or at least eastern in inspiration. Immediately after it comes the return of the first subject, now marked at least forte and played romantically on the violins with massive piano chords in the style of Rachmaninov. After the climax the atmosphere calms again before a grand gesture and a strong major key resolution at the end. Is it a dichotomy or is just an attempt to fuse the music of his homeland with the European works which he was now studying?

The second ‘Poème pour piano and orchestra’ Op. 22 was written just one year later. It is a lush effusion and I’m sorry to say I have no particular desire to hear it again. This is a pity because David Livelyis a sensitive pianist; stylistically ideal for this music. These two Poèmes are, in a sense, a preparation for the largest piece in this set: the twenty-five minute Piano Concerto composed in 1984 and played with great commitment by Abdel Rahman el Bacha. It adheres to a classical format being in three movements. The outer movements however are too overblown for the rather limited material. The whole work is rather derivative of weak post-romanticism. The odd moment when one is reminded of Dutilleux and Messiaen only serves to make matters worse.

The early music of Messiaen is especially recalled in the earliest work here ‘Le Regard du Christ’ Op 2, not only in the title but in its rich and sonorous language. El-Khoury started life, and has to some extent continued, as a church musician, so Messiaen is close to his heart, although this piece is not particularly representative of him.

After that things settle down a little.One is quickly immersed in El-Khoury’s natural landscape with his ‘Image Symphonique’. The devastation he saw around him as an impressionable young man is, quite naturally, reflected in this music. It inspired that work, and tragically, continues to inspire this distinctly serious music, which is trying to say something to us about the human condition in the inhumane circumstances of war and destruction. These circumstances also lie behind the Symphony Number 1 subtitled ‘Les Ruines de Beirut’ (on Naxos 8.557043). In an interview available from Naxos over the internet the composer talks of the symphony as the "last part of a Lebanese trilogy". The other parts are ‘Lebanon in Flames’ and ‘Requiem’ both of which are, in my view, the most moving pieces on this CD, not only for their tragic context but also because they are musically by far the most consistent and successful pieces here.

Some pieces came out of poems. The booklet notes by Gerald Hugon are only partially translated from the French. He tells us that ‘Lebanon in Flames’ was inspired by a poem written by the composer whilst he was living briefly in his homeland again. This twenty minute score is notable for its use of a very oriental melody at its mid-point played on the oboe with delicate harp accompaniment amidst the contrasting catastrophic sounds of destruction all around. The two-movement ‘Suite Symphonique’ subtitled ‘La nuit et le fou’ (The night and the madness) was inspired by a poet close to the composer’s heart - a fellow Lebanese, Khalil Gibran. It is a solemn, intensely chromatic and predominantly slow parade of dark murmurings perhaps more akin to a film score but with its own formal logic.

Until you know the music, formal logic is the very thing which appears lacking in most of these works. In actuality they have their own form which almost never corresponds to anything conventional. From that point of view El-Khoury is very French. The symphonic music does however have intellectual strength and complete integrity.

Of a slightly different ‘ilk’ is the ‘Méditation Poètique’ wonderfully played here by Gérard Poulet. At first I thought that it was using a tone row but then I read the booklet note which, if my French is up to it, suggests the music is post-romantic, not unlike Reger or even more closely, Alban Berg.

Mostly however the works on this CD are slow and serious and only one piece can be taken at a time. You may feel that the composer repeats himself. I suppose that this was inevitable when one considers how quickly some of these pieces came to fruition. Its worth noting that both the Op. 26 and Op. 29 date from 1983 and therefore we can perhaps assume that the works in between belong to that same year. It’s also worth noting that they all received fairly immediate performances. It is these which have been captured very competently by Forlane for posterity. Not all of these are equally good however. In some cases the orchestra appears to be distinctly under-rehearsed but mostly things go very well and on the whole the overall balance is excellent.

El-Khoury’s great champions have been Pierre Dervaux and the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne. They premiered all of this music. What a great loss therefore Dervaux has been to all concerned since his death in 1992 aged 75. This double CD acts as a memorial to him as well as a tribute to this fascinating composer.

Gary Higginson


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