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Bechara EL-KHOURY (b. 1957)
Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 62, Aux frontières de nulle part (On the Borders of Nowhere) (1999–2002) [22:17]
Horn Concerto, Op. 74, The Dark Mountain (2007–2008) [25:15]
Clarinet Concerto, Op. 78, Autumn Pictures (2009–2010) [25:31]
Sarah Nemtanu (violin), David Guerrier (horn), Patrick Messina (clarinet)
Orchestre National de France/Kurt Masur (violin), Jean-Claude Casadesus (horn)
Orchestre de Chambre de Paris/Olari Elts (clarinet)
rec. live, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 25 May 2006 (Violin), at the Salle Olivier Messiaen, Maison de la Radio, Radio France, Paris, Festival ‘Présences’, 18 September 2009 (Horn) and at Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Festival ‘Les Paris de la Musique’, 10 November 2010 (Clarinet)
world première. live recordings
NAXOS 8.572773 [73:13]

In a previous review of Bechara El-Khoury's orchestral music I wrote “his music can be considered an expression of his humanistic beliefs based on Christian spirituality” (Naxos 8.557043) and I still hold to that comment although these are more abstract works. In addition Gérald Hugon, in his excellent booklet notes comments, as we shall plainly hear, that his “voice is both lyrical and dramatic”.
The Violin Concerto No 1 exemplifies El-Khoury’s style perfectly. Formally it is unusual if not unique. The first movement takes up half of the concerto’s length. Its various fragments, which recur throughout, refer to the opening fifth motif of Berg’s Violin Concerto. There are also passages of almost biblical spaciousness and melodies, which remind one of the composer’s Lebanese background. I could also hear Henri Dutilleux somewhere in all of this. There is a sense of struggle between powerful brass sections and colouristic passages and the whole collapses into a five-minute virtuoso violin cadenza. This is tracked separately as the second movement but one could see this work, played without a break, as a two movement concerto of roughly equal halves in which this extended solo acts as an introduction to the violent and excitable finale. Here we have, as clear as day, lyrical music, almost romantic in feel even with a touch of Englishness about it. It also possesses a powerful touch of drama with sweeping brass glissandi and rushing semi-quaver scalic figures. Taken as a whole however there is a distinct French quality to the concerto but also a total individuality. I‘m not sure though how the title quite fits into the musical sound world. Sarah Nemtanu clearly relishes the challenge and the orchestra are on the best of form.
This is a Radio France recording of the first, live performance in Paris with a quiet and appreciative audience; that also applies to the other two concertos.
The Horn Concerto subtitled The Dark Mountain falls into three movements with an exhilarating cadenza appearing at the end of the first. This could be heard as a sonata-form movement. The first opening idea is immediately agitated and disturbed, with the second theme lyrical, gentle and slower. Each is developed and each returns. This immediately sets up a sense of the inspirational mountain walks the composer enjoyed during his Lebanese childhood. The second movement is a real ‘nature’ study with a spacious and brooding atmosphere and a sense of loneliness. In the third movement a reminder of the horn as a heroic instrument comes to the fore. This also mixes the lyrical and the dramatic but opens with a strong rhythmic tread which re-emerges occasionally. In a recent interview the composer admitted that the French horn is his favourite instrument and this certainly comes across in the totally idiomatic way he has approached this work. It can be heard in the basic material and in the sense of wide open spaces. For me this is one of the most gripping horn concertos I have heard. The music develops and grows logically which was deliberately not always the case with the composer’s varied and stimulating set of symphonic poems such as Le vin des nuages (Naxos 8.557043). David Guerrier is foot perfect in the considerable demands made by the composer and captures every mood and drama required.
El-Khoury is a fine and careful and honest orchestrator. The sounds that he makes are exactly what he wants, as again he discusses in the interview. This comes across most strongly in the Clarinet Concerto. There’s a wonderful passage in the rondo finale when the violin and celesta play a melody together which is quite enchanting ... but I’m jumping ahead. This is the most folk-like of the three works; to quote the composer “a piece that evokes, at one particular moment, the sky of the East”. The first movement, marked Cantabile, begins with a clarinet solo, which captures wide-open spaces, but with a touch of melancholy. Its modal inflections and later the melodic use of fourths and fifths, widely spaced chords, a touch in the high register of the soloist capturing the klezmer clarinet, all evoke a feel of ‘the East’. El- Khoury's homeland is almost touchable. Sometimes, curiously, I felt Kodaly not a million miles away.
The middle movement, which really seems to sum up the work’s subtitle Autumn Pictures, is marked Poetico. It not only uses some of the first movement’s melodic material but also is similar in mood and tempo; perhaps too similar to really make a strong mark. It is even more spacious and arguably, as Hugon suggests, minimalist. The finale, and this is a trait we have met in the other works, mixes lyricism in it episodes with almost Bartókian aggression in its strong rhythmic character. The ending seems to be aiming at a powerful and exciting conclusion but El-Khoury has a little trick up his sleeve, which I won't now let on, leaving that as a surprise. Patrick Messina has the ability to capture the long, legato lines in a poetic and highly sensitive manner. He also has the flexibility to make the faster sections and the two cadenzas tidy and clear. The orchestra is beautifully balanced and the Estonian conductor Olari Elts coaxes them into a wonderfully warm and sensitive performance.
This is mostly tonal music but quite distinctly of our time. Quite clearly Bechara El-Khoury continues to develop his personal musical voice regardless of fashion. It’s odd that his music has never really made it to the UK despite the superb promotional efforts of Naxos. Let's hope that one of this composer’s works will get a chance at the BBC Proms one day. His music would, I’m sure, generate a great deal of interest.
Gary Higginson

Previous review: Rob Barnett