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Lebanese Piano Music Anis FULEIHAN (1900-1970)
Piano Sonata No.9 (1970)* [15:35] Houtaf KHOURY (b.1967)
Piano Sonata No.3, ‘Pour un instant perdu...’ (2013)* [21:19] Boughos GELALIAN (1927-2011)
Tre Cicli (1969)* [9:00]
Canzona e Toccata (1981)* [6:52] George BAZ (1926-2012)
Esquisses (1959) [10:50] Toufic SUCCAR (b.1922)
Variations sur un Theme Oriental (1947) [6:25]
Tatiana Primak-Khoury (piano)
rec. Neumarkt, Germany 22-23 March, 2013 *World Première Recordings GRAND PIANO GP715 [79:46]
This disc is one that challenges anyone, who may still think that composers from countries east of Cyprus are unlikely to be influenced by ‘western’ traditions, but whose music is bound to be and sound ‘middle Eastern’. Of course there are influences from the Middle East as we would all expect to hear, but the sounds are otherwise very familiar. Thorsten Preuss, in his booklet notes, summarises the complex of contradictions that go to make up this fascinating little country as follows: What is Lebanon? “A small state in the Middle East shaken by crises and wars”, say media reports. “A vibrant, sometimes slightly chaotic country with the pulsating party capital Beirut at its heart” – that’s the view of many Lebanese. “An archaeological treasure-trove, containing riches left by everyone from the Phoenicians to the Ottomans”, art historians enthuse. “A colourful patchwork made up of 18 different religious communities – Christians, Muslims, Druze – with a need for painstaking agreements to maintain a balance of power between them”, say sociologists. “A country that is closer to Athens than to Mecca”, geographers have calculated. “A paradise where you can ski in the Lebanon Mountains in the morning and swim in the sea in the afternoon” according to travel agents’ sales literature”. The composer Toufic Succar sums it up as a country “located exactly where the Orient and the Occident meet. It looks out over the sea, and the sea brings us the Western world. And on the other side, beyond the mountains, lies the Orient, the deserts and all that. That’s Lebanon. It inhabits both worlds”. Its music does, too, which adds to its fascination.
A clear example of this is the Piano Sonata No.9 by Anis Fuleihan, who was born and raised in the Cypriot town of Kyrenia and who spent much of his life in the USA as a pianist and conductor, as well as composer. As scion of an old Lebanese family, the influences of traditional music from Lebanon still permeate his music, as can be heard in this sonata, written the same year he died. It has a beautiful opening with a simple tune, which is later fractured and treated to a disturbing set of variations, before the simplicity of the opening returns to calm things down once more. The third movement is an especially effective Lebanese dance, showing the composer’s desire to ensure his country’s music formed part of his. As the booklet notes explain, the kaleidoscopic nature of the sonata is held together by its classic four movement form, and the opening tune is revisited at the sonata’s close to close the circle, making for a satisfying conclusion to the musical argument.
Next comes the third piano sonata by Houtaf Khoury, husband of Ukrainian-Lebanese Tatiana Primak-Khoury, the pianist on this disc. According to the booklet notes this sonata is almost a political treatise in music, which seeks to expose the dilemma that is Lebanon, a country that has found itself a political football, caused as much by its geographical position as any internal strife. The first movement is entitled ‘hasard’, implying that chance has an important role to play in Lebanon and, given that nowhere chooses to be where it is that must be true of everywhere, but regrettably for that country its position is a very unfortunate one. This movement is a disjointed one, in which the music is fragmented and quite brutally ‘untuneful’, reflecting, as Khoury says “our difficult life in a country where politics shatters every dream”. The second movement bears the title ‘le temps suspendu’ (time in suspension), which seeks to emphasise how the individual is powerless to effect change in an atmosphere, where politics and religion exert such an all pervading influence on every walk of life. To do this Khoury manages to convey a world, in which everything is frozen, while the last movement is ‘quest’ in the sense of rebellion against this paralysis, imposed by government, though pessimistically Khoury says this search “comes to an end in the graveyard”. He is nevertheless optimistic that the power of art can hold a people together and unite them in a way that politics fails to do and that “artists can change a great deal”; I’ll raise a glass to that! Though the piano sonata is an uncompromising listen, it is very well worth the effort.
Boghos Gelalian, whose Tre Cicli comes next, is one of those artists, who Khoury must have in mind when he says he pins more hope on them than on the politicians, since he was said to have resolutely continued to give lessons even while bombs fell and snipers operated during the civil war and whether there was electricity or not. He was a composer whose family had literally jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, having escaped the Ottoman genocide, perpetrated against Armenians in the city of Alexandretta at the time it was annexed by Turkey, though it was often fought over in attempts to incorporate it into Syria. His three part piano work is powerfully stated and modern in style, though its sharp sounding edge is somewhat softened by the oriental rhythms that shine through, particularly in the second. The other work of his on the disc, Canzona e Toccata similarly uses folk inspired themes as a starting point, expressing seriously moody and reflective attitudes, but since it was written at the height of the civil war, it is is hardly surprising that this would not colour his music at that time. The Canzona is gentle by comparison with the Toccata, which, with its relentlessly driving rhythms, requires some extremely powerful playing. Gelalian was a composer, whose work these two examples show is very well worth getting to know better.
A calming contrast is affected by Esquisses by George Baz, which are truly delightful little gems, and his description of his music as being a “commemoration of Impressionism, enriched by small personal discoveries” is modest by any standards, while the music itself is much greater than that statement implies. They were inspired by a stay in Siena, where he studied while working in a bank, and they show his attraction to ‘French’ style though even then glimpses of the Orient come through.
The final work on this fascinating disc is a set of variations on an oriental theme by Toufic Succar, and the description of his attempts to musically reconcile the two worlds that make up Lebanon is sufficient encouragement to want to seek more of his music out, especially after hearing this lovely, thoroughly satisfying work, which subjects a charming little tune to some exciting and imaginative variations. The booklet notes describe his string quartets as having been written not in major or minor modes, but in Arabian quarter-tone modes, which sounds really interesting and I shall be trying to find out where I can hear them.
This disc is yet another demonstration of the universality of music and how difficult it is to pigeon-hole it, but then, why should anyone want to, for music simply is a unique art form that is best left alone to speak for itself. Tatiana Primak-Khoury is a sensitive player, who has managed to convey the multiplicity of moods the composers featured displayed in their music and is a great ambassador for this small country’s rich musical heritage. It is an extremely interesting and highly enjoyable disc.