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Bechara EL-KHOURY (b.1957)
Danse pour orchestre, Danse des Aigles, Op. 9 (1980) [2:26]
Image symphonique, Les Dieux de la terre, Op.26 (1982) [9:50]
Suite symphonique, La nuit et le fou, Op.29 (1982) [13:10]
Requiem pour orchestre, Op.18 (1980) [20:15]
Poème symphonique, No.1, Le Liban en flammes, Op.14 (1980) [20:31]
Poème pour orchestre, Le Regard du Christ, Op.2 (1979) [10:27]
Orchestre Colonne/Pierre Dervaux
rec. L’Église Notre-Dame du Liban, Paris, September-October 1983
NAXOS 8.557691 [76:35]

I noticed recently that Kurt Masur had conducted the premiere of Bechara El-Khoury’s Violin Concerto with Sarah Nemtanu and the Orchestre National de France in Paris, in May 2006. El-Khoury’s profile is, indeed, a good deal higher in his adopted land of France than it is in Britain. Born in Beirut in 1957, El-Khoury has lived in Paris since 1979, becoming a French citizen in 1987.

Much the greater part of El-Khoury’s work is for orchestra. In the catalogue published by Editions Max Eschig (, some thirty three works are listed; twenty are for orchestra or for orchestra with soloist. His fascination with orchestral resources and colour is everywhere evident and much of the music relies upon large-scale effects not easily imaginable in, say, a work for piano trio. This is music of large gestures, music which paints with a broad brush - broad enough to necessitate an orchestral canvas.

These are all early works, written very soon after the composer’s move from Lebanon to Paris. During his years in Beirut, El-Khoury he worked as choirmaster at the church of St. Elias in Antelias near Beirut). That background is evident in the Christian imagery which informs some of his work.

As a composer El-Khoury is a powerful creator of moods, a forceful musical articulator of attitudes and emotions; he seems less concerned that his works should follow clear structural patterns, than that they should conduct precise musical arguments. It works by startling contrasts, by sudden climaxes, by abrupt eruptions in the brass or by slow, lush passages for the strings. Much of the music here straddles the borders between a belated romanticism with echoes of Scriabin and a modernism that one might associate with, say Dutilleux or Penderecki.

To borrow a distinction from the English poet Coleridge, El-Khoury’s work seems to belong to the school of organic form - where a piece evolves its own form under the pressure of its content, the achieved form being shaped from within, as it were - rather than mechanic form - where a piece is written in a pre-existing, conventional form – such as the sonnet or the sonata. When it works, this is fine and exciting; when it doesn’t, the resulting music can seem rather shapeless.

We get a bit of both experiences here. The brief Danse pour Orchestre, which opens the CD, is a miniature of great vitality, perhaps rather obviously ‘oriental’ in some of its effects, but certainly striking. Les Dieux de la Terre works by El-Khoury’s characteristic method of juxtaposition, rather than development, and the writing, in contrasting thick orchestral passages with more lightly instrumented ones, sustains tension quite effectively. The suite, La nuit et le fou, gets some unity from its use of shared thematic material, and there are striking passages for woodwind and brass sections. Le Regard du Christ is touching in its sense of innocent awe.

It is in the two longest pieces, the Requiem pour orchestre and the Poème symphonique: Le Liban en flammes that the relative absence of firm structures is most problematic. Both are experienced as a series of episodes which are often interesting in themselves, often moving in the emotional intensity with which they confront the tragic near-destruction of Lebanon in the 1970s; but in both cases I was left unpersuaded that all of these episodes were essential or, indeed, that none of them were superfluous. As a result neither work is entirely satisfying, neither feels altogether whole, neither communicates that sense that the composer has achieved the whole work and nothing but the work.

But, even with this reservation, and remembering that these are the works of a young man in his twenties, there is much to recommend this CD. El-Khoury is certainly a very skilled and imaginative orchestrator; he has some arresting ideas and a musical voice of his own. The performances are committed and stirring – if not always absolutely ‘perfect’ - and well recorded.

Glyn Pursglove

see also review by Rob Barnett


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