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Mohammad Saeed SHARIFIAN (b.1955) Eclipse - An Islamic Oratorio in eight parts [107:03]
Olga Emanuela Sěin (soprano); Florence Lippett (mezzo); Eshagh Ancar (Persian traditional singer)
Oltenia Philharmonic Choir/Edward Man
Oltenia Philharmonic Orchestra (Romania)/Alexandru Iosub
rec. Craiova, Romania, 2007 NEYDAVOOD 79917 [42:51 + 64:53]
The Iranian composer
Mohammad Saeed Sharifian left his home country at the age of 18 to study music in England. His areas of study were composition, flute, piano and percussion. This involved three years working with, amongst others, RVW pupil Philip Cannon at the Colchester Institute of Music. In the late-1970s, he was a founder member of the 'Essex Composers', a group exploring avant-garde trends. After spending the nineteen-eighties in Italy in pursuit of his Ph.D. in electro-acoustic music, he returned to his birth city of Tehran. There he specialised in the meeting place between Iranian folk-music and sophisticated orchestral scores. Since 2003 he has divided his time between the UK and Iran. Further insights into this composer are offered by a two-part BBC interview with Sharifian on Youtube as well as extracts from his symphony Arvand. Three of his scores are accessible on the Fand Press website.
Sharifian's works run to more than eighty and include a number of very substantial scores: Bani Adam - on poems by Sa'adi … (1998) written for a U.N. summit meeting, the symphonies Sardaran (2000) and Arvand (2002 - a rather Sibelian portrait of the Iranian river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates – and the symphonic poem Arash (2002). Ghazali was a BBC commission and Tolu (Sunrise) formed a second oratorio for symphony orchestra and choir with three soloists. He has also written film music.
In an interview Sharifian agrees that in writing Eclipse (why that title?) he tried to place his creative mind with those caught up in the story all those hundreds of years ago. However he also emphasised that he wanted the result to have some grip on the events of today. Sharifian lives in Norfolk but commutes to Iran on occasion. His wife is the singer Florence Lippett, who is a soloist in this recording.
To judge from Eclipse, Sharifian has for now laid aside his interest in electro-acoustics. Instead there is ample evidence of his embedded engagement with the mediation of indigenous music of Iran and ambitious Western classical forms and styles. We are told that Eclipse is the first symphonic work based on a religious subject to be written in the 1400 year history of Islamic culture. The work traces the tragedy of "Ashura", which recounts the story of the death of Emam Hossein, the third saint and the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Hossein, called to lead his people, interrupts a pilgrimage and makes for the city of Kufe. En route he is intercepted by a vast army which, after he refuses their ultimatum, proceeds to kill Hossein and his soldiery. The caravan's women and children are led into captivity.
My copy of this set did not include the sung words or any translation. In fact it is entirely in Farsi. You can however get some idea of the structure from the tracklist:-
Track 1- Introduction [10:21]
Track 2 - Caravan moving towards Mecca [14:37]
Track 3 - Pilgrimage [6:39]
Track 4 - Caravan moving towards Karbala [11:02]
Track 1- Tasua (day of dialogues) [23:03]
Track 2 - Meditation [10:21]
Track 3 - Ashura (the battle) [16:18]
Track 4 - The sunset after [15:11]
Eclipse starts by casting a strong cinematic spell. Repetitive elements sway and at 8:32 (tr.1) a male singer carries the burden of sadness. We move next (tr. 2) into a slowly blazing majestic statement for full orchestra and choral forces. It's redolent of Howells' Missa Sabrinensis but the lofty grandeur is tempered by pages of contemplative writing for woodwind and harp. The Pilgrimage section (tr. 3) has smooth and suave singing from the mixed choir. There is an ominous undercurrent here with a male solo voice coursing high and creating an incantatory effect. Ripely defiant trumpets introduce the Caravan moving towards Karbala (tr. 4). The music then becomes curvaceous and comforting but is interrupted (4:19) by some incisive Orff-like chatter. A tragic downbeat gradually - and most beautifully - asserts itself. This section and the first CD ends with a chiming Holstian ostinato and a sense of filmic grandeur.
CD 2: Part 5, Tasua, opens with the delightful and communicative voice of Eshagh Ancar. We may not understand the words but this singer convinces you that they are full of meaning as well as conveying a sort of relaxed ecstasy. It's intriguing that I hear nothing of the Westerner's Arabic cliché in this music. It is more Western 20th century but it's certainly not avant-garde. At 7.22 a celebratory dance is picked out by trumpet and then by a benedictory swirling harp. This rises to torment and a steely storm (11:36 and 17:34). After choral writing that seems to have one foot in Rachmaninov's Vespers and the other in Orff's Carmina Burana, the music fades into mystery. The Meditation (tr. 2) is stern and stoical with the distanced male voices of the choir and the traditional singer in play again. The Battle (tr 3) boasts exotic barbarian trumpets and the suggestion of a tragic Mahlerian march. The whirl of men's voices against those of the women becomes increasingly possessed. Jagged note-patterns are hammered out tutti and alternate with ululating solo voices. The crashing march returns, savage and crushing. There's some magnificent playing from solo trumpet here. People should watch out for this musician; a pity he is not identified. The final movement is very communicative with a touch of the Janacek Glagolitic Mass and of Maurice Jarré's film music. The writing conveys that sense of journey done but there's a vein of desolation too. After a few transient echoes of Orff the music calms into the refined liquid silver of solo female voices. These voices entwine and ululate in contemplative votary style as a velvety sense of tragedy (13:40) engulfs the listener. At the close, majestic drums beat at the heart.
Looking for an ambitious choral work that breaks free from the usual subjects? Try this: A sea-change into something imaginatively blessed and strange. Rob Barnett