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Bechara EL-KHOURY (b.1957)
New York, Tears and Hope for orchestra Op. 65 (2001/2005) [15:01]
Sextet for Violins performed by 24 violins Op. 58 (1996) [4:56]
Les Fleuves engloutis for orchestra Op. 64 (2001) [13:23]
Waves, for solo piano Op. 60 (1998) [11:43]
Forgotten Fragments for piano Op. 66 (2002) [7:07]
London Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (opp. 58, 65); London Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding (op. 64); Dimitri Vassilakis (piano)
rec. Studio 1 Abbey Road Studio, 22 January 2006 (opp. 58, 65); Classic fm, live, The Barbican, London, 30 October 2003 (op. 64); live, Radio France 9 February 2003, 29 May 2005 (opp. 60, 66)
NAXOS 8.570134 [52:10]

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This disc, which mixes orchestral works with piano pieces, is the fourth Naxos CD devoted to music by this striking and increasingly fascinating Lebanese-French composer. Naxos’s example shows the kind of terrific commitment that contemporary composers need. El-Khoury has literally struck the right note with both Naxos and with his growing band of admirers.

The first work on the disc should have received its first performance in New York just as I write (September 2006). It is in memory of the victims of 9/11 and is given the wonderful title of ‘Tears and Hope’ - tragedy and expectation side by side. The composer contacted me as I was preparing this review to say that due to security difficulties its performance has been postponed for twelve months. So you can only hear it on CD at present.

The music was begun a few years ago but started to coalesce when the composer began to consider the terrible events of 9/11. Here is a work in respect of which you may feel that any composer who would write such a composition is either naïve or stupid. But El-Khoury is neither of these things. He has written a heartfelt plea for peace and love across all nations. It starts from a mood of dark despondency, even resignation. Over a long pedal, little scatterings of almost apologetic sounds can be picked out seemingly at random. The music then rises through pain to an uplifting ending. For me the joy at the end is too easily attained. The huge major chord achieved a little too easily but this does not take away the aching beauty of this masterpiece. Perhaps future conductors will just hold back the tempo a little more in the last dozen bars or so to make the final chord even more telling.

The second work is also orchestral. I had the privilege of hearing it open the last Master Prize concert in the Barbican about three years ago. Its birth and original commission is somewhat unusual. ‘The Rivers Engulfed’ (Les Fleuves engloutis) was broadcast a movement at a time. This curious state of affairs is explained in the excellent booklet notes by Gérald Hugon: "the composer 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 aim was to allow the progressive entry of listeners into a work through repeated hearings over a weekend in the course of several broadcasts" - would BBC Radio 3 consider such an idea? - "The work was then repeated complete at the end of the weekend." That is why in making up a work of just over thirteen minutes there are five well-contrasted sections all with different titles like ‘ Song of Silence’ and ‘Struggle’. The mood is often sombre but broken by dramatic and powerful passages evoking, as I have noted in his music before, a vast biblical landscape. ‘Tears and Hope’ starts carefully over a deep pedal and gradually sets out on its adventure of sound before almost ending as it began. The work was very adequately recorded at the aforementioned Master Prize final and it is that which is presented here.

Bechara El-Khoury enjoys bipartite forms. It seems to me that these are different from Binary structures. One tends to think of the latter as two equals: A+B. In bipartite form one section may be longer than the other, or carry more weight emotionally even if it is shorter. The ‘Sextet’, here in a version for string orchestra, ’Fragments Oubliés’ and ‘Waves’ fall into this category. Other works to a similarly plan include the 2nd Piano Sonata op. 61 and the ‘Quintet à vent’ Op. 46.

When writing for the piano he is a far more harmonically radical composer than in the orchestral works which can often touch, if not even stray into, tonality. These two piano works are striking in their dissonance and harmonic instability, especially the faster sections. ‘Fragments Oubliés’ begins chromatically, almost like early twelve-tone Schoenberg, feeling its way towards its ideas. After five minutes the fragments flit across the soundscape and eventually coalesce into a rapid and vapid array of notes using the entire keyboard in a quixotic display of fireworks. ‘Waves’ is likewise harmonically unstable and experimental. We are reminded of the good and bad side of the effects of water and floods. Again, good and evil, joys and sufferings are represented. These are two sides of a coin, the theme we met in the first work, Tears and Hope. These are bi-partite contrasts, side by side. Michael Tippett heads the score of ‘A Child of Our Time’ "the darkness declares the glory of the light", and later famously writes "I would know my shadow and my light". This is what Bechara El-Khoury is constantly exploring and no doubt still will in future works, and, I believe, even more profoundly.

I know that the composer was grateful for and proud, pleased, and excited by the meticulous performances his music received here. He was present at the recordings and you can be sure that what you hear is what he intended and that the performers have likewise found his music moving and exhilarating all at once.

Gary Higginson


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