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Mohammed FAIROUZ (b. 1985)
Tahrir (2013)* [10.16]
Symphony No 3 Poems and Prayers (2013) + [60.16]
David Krakauer* (clarinet), Sasha Cooke+ (mezzo), James Callon+ (tenor), David Kravitz+ (baritone), Nicole Sauder+ (violin)
UCLA Chorale+, UCLA University Chorus+
UCLA Philharmonia/Neal Stulberg
rec. Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, 4-8 December 2013
SONO LUMINUS DSL 92177 [CD + Blu-Ray Audio: 70.32]

It is bitterly ironic that this album containing Mohammed Fairouz’s heartfelt plea for peace in the age-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East should appear at a time when that same struggle is erupting in a new and bitter war of attrition. Perhaps it is also timely. The symphony Poems and Prayers follows in a long line of ‘political music’ which goes back for centuries. It is not surprising to learn from the extensive booklet notes by Tamara Levitz that the first performance on 8 December 2013 provoked a deeply emotional response from the audience. This recording derives not only from that performance but also from previous rehearsals over a period of four days. Both works featured were premièred on the same occasion.

The disc begins with Tahrir for clarinet and orchestra, a piece written to commemorate the rising of the people in Cairo during the period of the Arab Spring in 2011. The title refers to the square where the populace assembled over a period of weeks, progressively wearing down the resistance of the Mubarak regime and forcing their resignation. Although the results of that revolution have not been entirely happy, there is a definite sense of rejoicing in this music. The clarinet indulges in a whole series of klezmer-like gestures superimposed over a variety of marching rhythms. Although some of these rhythmic accompaniments remain persistently unchanged for rather too long — in the best minimalist style — they have a relentless pulse which is most exciting. A sudden veering away into Glass-like arpeggios hardly disturbs this onward progress. The playing of David Krakauer is everything that could be desired as he squawks away in his topmost register. This is a piece that one would be delighted to encounter again.

The main interest in this disc resides in the Symphony. This is in four movements. The first is a setting of the Jewish Kaddish, ending with an impassioned prayer for piece. The central two movements are settings of Palestinian laments, both of them leading into expanded settings of the same prayer heard at the end of the first movement. The final movement, by far the longest, illustrates the futile struggle between the Israeli and Palestinian people before the final return of the prayer. This makes for a satisfyingly symphonic structure in which the two elements are perfectly balanced.

The main problem with the music lies, at any rate for this listener, in its melodic style. Much of the vocal line is structured on the basis of Jewish and Arabic chants, with their elaborate melismata. Although the words and excellently readable translations are provided in the booklet it is not always easy for the hearer to determine exactly where in the text we have arrived — especially since some passages are repeated. The melodic lines themselves lack the ideal degree of memorable quality, so that thematic cross-references are not immediately apparent. Fairouz makes some use of quotation from other composers: from Chopin’s Funeral March and at one point – although unacknowledged – from what sounds like the opening phrase from Mussorgsky’s Old castle in Pictures at an Exhibition. As so often in these circumstances those citations —— tend to obtrude as the most obviously recognisable material here. I don’t want to make too much of this – much of Fairouz’s music, especially the developing material of the prayer for peace, is particularly beautiful and emotionally affecting. However, one misses the overwhelming visceral charge of a work like Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms or Bloch’s Sacred Service - to cite two other works which make similar use of Hebrew chants.

The release may be setting a trend in the way that the recording is provided complete in two different formats: a standard CD and a Blu-Ray audio one. I listened to the work on the Blu-Ray option, but comparisons with the CD version using the same equipment did not reveal any substantial differences in sound. The recorded acoustic is fine, although sometimes the string players are slighted by the balance. One can imagine that this symphony would be even more effective with a larger body of players in this department. Perhaps Daniel Barenboim might consider it for his East-West Divan Orchestra, a body devoted to the same cause?

The performances, apart from this slight reservation, are magnificently assured and one would never suspect that this is a student body of singers and players. Sasha Cooke and David Kravitz, who have the lion’s share of the solo work in the symphony, are both committed and manage their often awkward vocal lines with passion. Even better is James Callon, who has a small part in the first repeat of the prayer for peace which he floats beautifully. Neal Stulberg manages all his forces with conviction. Fairouz’s biography states that he studied with Ligeti, Schuller and Danielpour – all good models – and one looks forward to his future development with eager anticipation.
Paul Corfield Godfrey