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Bechara EL-KHOURY (b.1957)
Violin Concerto No 1, Op.62 On the borders of nowhere [22.17]
Horn Concerto, Op.74 The dark mountain [25.15]
Clarinet Concerto, Op.78 Autumn pictures [23.31]
Sarah Nemtanu (violin)
David Guerrier (horn)
Patrick Messina (clarinet)
French National Orchestra/Kurt Masur (op. 62) Jean-Claude Casadesus (op. 74)
Paris Chamber Orchestra/Olari Elts (op. 78)
rec. Théâtre de Champs-Elysées, Paris, 25 May 2006 (op. 62); Salle Olivier Messiaen, French Radio, Paris, 18 September 2009 (op. 74); Théâtre de Chatelet, Paris, 10 November 2010 (op. 78)
NAXOS 8.572773 [73.13]

The three recordings on this disc all derive from live first performances and all are world première recordings. The composer’s music will already be familiar to those who have invested in the four earlier series of releases on Naxos, and this issue is valuable in helping to ‘flesh out’ the favourable impressions created by those discs. It has however to be observed that the earlier releases did not win universal approbation from the critics, some of whom objected to the composer’s neo-romantic aspirations as “pretentious” and as “mere pastiches of style and mood”. Others welcomed the evident commitment and passion which he pours into his music, Gary Higginson on this site describing it as “strong, dramatic and visual”. I must confess that I find myself wholly in the latter camp, finding the scores of Bechara El-Khoury to be a refreshing change from modern music that seems to strive solely for aural effect without any concern for the emotional content of what is – after all – the supremely emotional medium of music.

Much of the composer’s music is concerned with memories and reminiscences of his Lebanese homeland, although he has now been resident in France for a good many years. Two of the concertos here – those for horn and clarinet – acknowledge this influence, while the First Violin Concerto written in 1999-2002 takes the concerto by Berg as its model. It must be admitted that the two wind concertos, with their programmatic titles, are more gripping than that for violin which, while it also has a title — not explained in the otherwise excellent booklet notes — does have a sense of drifting. While the music has plenty of rhythmic drive, it is not clear precisely where it is going until a lushly romantic melody finally makes a brief appearance during the course of the finale (track 3, 4.10). Sarah Nemtanu copes bravely with the insistent virtuosic figuration, but I am not sure that the whole work coheres despite her valiant efforts and Masur’s controlled management of the orchestra.

The Horn Concerto written during 2007-8 has a far more assured sense of purpose, and fully exploits the heroic potential of the instrument in a series of passionate and indeed thrilling virtuosic passages. The finale, marked Drammatico energico, opens with a series of repeated chords which are thoroughly dramatic and energetic; and the slow Poetico slow movement is charged with emotion. The melody which emerges in the finale (track 6, 5.00) is beautifully handled by David Guerrier, who seems able to cope with the most stratospheric writing with enviable ease. Jean-Claude Casadesus brings out all the lushness of the rich orchestral scoring superbly.

After the whirling finale of the Horn Concerto, the opening of the Clarinet Concerto written in 2009-10 seems rather more withdrawn. It soon gathers emotional weight with some decidedly folk-influenced turns on the solo instrument; there is even a hint of the opening of the final Act of Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Thereafter it moves forward purposefully. The scoring for the orchestra is less challenging, as one would expect given the nature of the solo instrument. One does suspect that some of the elaborate figuration given to the clarinet is prompted more by the desire for display than for the evocation of “the sky of the East” which the composer describes in the booklet notes. Again the performance is excellent, with Patrick Messina supplying smooth tone throughout his range, without any suspicion of shrillness even in the highest passages. The orchestral playing under Olari Ets is most responsive.

Although the Horn Concerto is a magnificent and stirring work, which deserves to be heard more often, one has to admit to a suspicion that El-Khoury’s undoubted compositional genius is not ideally suited to the notion of a display piece that is implied by the title “concerto”. As such the music on this disc is not as immediately impressive as that on the earlier Naxos releases of purely orchestral scores. On the other hand, those who have enjoyed those earlier discs should certainly investigate this one. Although these are live performances — as the enthusiastic applause at the end of each work attests — the quality of the recorded sound is excellent. The performances are such as to make any composer green with envy. Those unfamiliar with the work of El-Khoury should certainly investigate these Naxos issues of modern music which is immediately approachable. It's much much more than just surface “pastiche”. One looks forward with eager anticipation to future releases from this source.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous reviews: Gary Higginson and Rob Barnett

Reviews of other El-Khoury recordings:
Naxos 8.557043 ~~ Naxos 8.557691 ~~ Naxos 8.570134 ~~ Forlane ARC361216762