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Bechara EL-KHOURY (b.1957)
Orages (Storms) – Concert Overture Op. 93 (2013) [14.00]
Symphonic Poem No 6 ‘Espaces –Fragmentations Op. 87(2011) [10.08]
Poème nocturne for flute and orchestra, Op. 80 (2009) [18.34]
Le chant d’amour-Lyric Poem Op 44 (1987) [9.25]
Vicens Prats (flute)
Ariane Douget (soprano: Le chant)
Orchestre de Paris/Paavo Järvi (Orage), Elvind Gullberg Jensen (Poème)
Orchestra Colonne/David Coleman
Orchestre National de France/Daniele Gatti (Espaces)
rec. live, Salle Pleyel Paris, October 9, 2000 (Le chant), June 9, 2010 (Poème), September 12, 2013 (Orage); Theatre des Champs-Elysees, Paris, November 5, 2012 (Espaces)
NAXOS 8.573617 [52.06]

By my reckoning this is now the sixth disc of music by this Lebanese-French composer to appear on disc, all now on Naxos. And this disc contains live performances of works dating back to the beginning of the century.

It’s good that they have been rescued, as it were, not only for the intrinsic quality and approachability of the music and for the fine performances but because El-Khoury has hardly ever been heard in the UK either live or on the radio.

The first track, Orages, (Storms) gives the CD its name. He calls it, rather quaintly I think, a ‘Concert Overture’ and not one of the several tone poems he has penned throughout his career. Its inspiration, the composer admits, comes from the rainstorms that would hit his native Beirut in the early evening and which he remembers as a child. I have experienced such a storm, as probably many of you have, in Jordan and the effect is often quite frightening. But to explain a storm in music is not an easy matter. Over almost a quarter of an hour, El-Khoury has devised a fantasia based around some small patterns of notes and rhythms, which are flung and bounced around the large orchestra. Much goes on and there is no conventional structure but the work mainly hangs together convincingly and with much ensuing excitement.

In writing about El-Khoury’s Concertos on Naxos in 2015 (8.572773) I described him as a “careful and honest orchestrator” and by that I mean that he seems to be able to notate exactly what his inner ear demands. In the Symphonic Poem No 6 ‘Espaces-Fragmentations’ he conjures sounds almost from outer space. The annotator, Gerald Hugon, comments that the composer “sees a cosmic dimension of past, present and future” as he gazes into the night sky. Splinters and flashes fly in various directions juggling alongside moments of utter stillness and ending with a cosmic bang. This is a fine work just spoiled a little by the audience applauding a little too soon. It was written to be played between Beethoven’s 2nd and 6th Symphonies; any composer would find that an exciting and exacting prospect but El-Khoury rises to it impressively as he is measured, as it were against the most significant of repertoires.

Vocal music is not a strong aspect of El-Khoury’s output so its good that we have the brief Le Chant de l’amour represented here in a recording now some seventeen years old. It is a setting of three stanzas by Alphonse de Lamartine (d.1869), each separated by a brief orchestral interlude. There are moments in other works by El-Khoury when he allows himself to wash in a flood of Romantic harmonies and the composer’s avowed regard for Richard Strauss also comes to the fore. For myself however this music is run through with ‘Frenchness’. It is languorous and sensual, and I can hear early Messiaen and figures like Dutilleux whom El-Khoury much admires and even Ernst Chausson. The recording is not ideal, Ariane Douguet is just about on top of the required high tessitura but is rather recessed against the exotic orchestral writing and in addition her diction is far from clear. Even so its good to have this rare facet of the composer’s art revealed so lovingly by David Coleman’s Orchestre Colonne.

The longest work however is the Poème nocturne written in memory of the great French flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, but although scored for flute and orchestra it is not a conventional flute concerto. It is in three connected sections, the outer ones are for the flute and orchestra (here with the warm and sensual tone quality of Vicens Prats) but the violent almost randomly wild middle one is for orchestra alone which the composer says is to be regarded as a cadenza, not for the soloist as is normal, but for the orchestra which is otherwise treated with delicacy, in an almost chamber music style. In fact, of the work’s eighteen minutes about fifteen minutes is devoted to the quiet, nocturnal characteristic of the title, which is really a homage-memorial to Rampal. The mood is dreamy and nostalgic but inhabits, tonally, a land somewhere between France and the Middle East with its modal chromaticisms. Hugon, in his generally excellent analysis of the music writes of the end of the piece that “finally, there emanates a subtle oriental fragrance” but I feel that it has been there throughout, with the composer being abstractedly carried back to the sunlit Lebanon of his youth.

As fascinating as this work is however, I’m not sure if it is completely satisfactory in form and substance with the outer movements being a little too similar.

If Bechara El-Khoury is a new name to you then this CD might make a good start but it comes in a little shorter in length than one would ideally like and there might be reservations about two of the works so I would recommend an earlier disc as a starting point with his impressive orchestral memorial ‘New York, Tears and Hope’; as its central point (Naxos 8.57034) and returning to my earlier thoughts, his music deserves to be known more in the UK where it surely make a firm impression.

The wonderfully committed performances must have delighted the composer and the recordings are clear and detailed except where highlighted above, there is a little audience noise but it is unobtrusive and there is applause at the end of each work. The booklet notes are, as I said, helpful and the performers biographies succinctly written with photographs.

Gary Higginson



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