About this Recording
8.557691 - EL-KHOURY: Orchestral Works
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Bechara El-Khoury (b. 1957)
Orchestral Works


Bechara El-Khoury was born in Beirut in 1957 and started his musical studies in the Lebanon, before moving in 1979 to Paris to complete his training with Pierre-Petit, then Director of the Ecole Normale de Musique. By the time he decided to settle in the French capital, he already had a dual reputation as the composer of some hundred works written between 1969 and 1978, and as a poet, with several collections published from 1971 onwards, in addition to his intensive activity as a pianist, conductor, chorus-master, and as a writer of articles in the press. An important concert of El- Khoury's works was given in Paris on 9 December 1983 by the Orchestre Colonne under Pierre Dervaux with the collaboration of the pianist Abdel Rahman El-Bacha, as part of the celebration of the centenary of Khalil Gibran. Several of the works included here had their world première on this occasion, the Symphonic Poem No. 1: Lebanon in Flames, the Requiem: For the Lebanese Martyrs in the War, the Symphonic Picture: The Gods of the Earth and the Symphonic Suite: Night and the Fool. In 1987 El-Khoury took out French citizenship. His works have been played by distinguished orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, the Paris Orchestre Colonne, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, the Orchestre Symphonique Français, and others.

Pierre-Petit wrote about the composer: 'Bechara El- Khoury's music is deeply rooted in the soil of his own country but his solid knowledge of western technique allows him to attempt with success the delicate amalgamation of oriental sensibility with the language of Europe. The harmonic procedures that he uses certainly emanate from the grand classical tradition, but he has an individual style that ensures the constant presence of this magic and bewitching Orient from which he comes, without falling into false showiness or cheap colouring. Without doubt he is one of those very rare beings who knows how to reconcile the irreconcilable, without ever deviating from a line of conduct that leads him irresistibly from the shores of romanticism towards the most contemporary modes of expression.'

El-Khoury brings back to the music of today the expression of personal feeling, of passion and of emotion. In an interview with Bruno Serrou he said: 'I am an enthusiast for freedom and accept no sectarianism. I write as I feel, while taking into account the evolution of the world. I refuse to break with the past, which for me is a stimulus, an asset. Music ought to be the reflection of human feelings and a universal language'. Sensible to the beauties as well as the miseries of the world, the composer realises one of his deepest convictions 'to put into music human nature and its passions'. The predominance of the narrative aspect in his works is at the origin of his preference for free form, proceeding rhapsodically in a succession of contrasted sections, subject to the development of poetic feeling. Even when he tackles traditional abstract forms such as the sonata, he never uses pre-established patterns foreign to the vital impulse of his creative imagination. Up to his Op. 23 the technical means he uses remain faithful to the idea of tonality, not to a traditional tonality, based on the evolutionary idea of a progress amid a series of modulations, but rather of a tonality conceived as a point of reference, a fixed pole.

Image symphonique, Op. 26, ushers in a new phase, tonally freer and bolder, that has its fuller development in the Méditation poétique for violin and orchestra (Naxos 8.557692). The character of the composer is directed towards greater concision, and tends to contrast, as they develop, emotional states with greater rapidity. The orchestration, always richly worked, gives an impression of wide spaces by using the main sections of the orchestra in groups, clearly as against lighter textures that favour rather writing for solo instrumental sounds. In the latter the composer's taste for instruments that give romantic colour, such as the clarinet or the horn, is apparent.

The Danse, Op. 9, with the subtitle Danse des aigles (Dance of the Eagles) is surely one of El- Khoury's most brilliant and extravert pieces. Composed in 1980, this miniature, with its rich orchestration, its melismas in oriental colouring, and the wild character of its rhythms, is in the direct tradition of Russian or Armenian musicians such as Khachaturian. This work fully deserves to be placed alongside the most famous and most spectacular symphonic dances of the twentieth century.

Dedicated to Pierre Dervaux, the Image symphonique, Op. 26, subtitled Les Dieux de la terre (The Gods of the Earth), originates in a poem by Khalil Gibran. This score, composed in 1982, tends to use free chromaticism, recalling in a way the language of Penderecki's most recent works. Except in the extreme parts of the work, the composer seems to abandon here the long dreamy periods that characterized his earlier compositions. On the contrary he operates by touches and quickly contrasts dense orchestral textures with others that are lighter, sometimes solo, symbolizing visions that clash against one another to a faster rhythm. The surprising final bars, entrusted only to the brass, are like a Wagnerian reminiscence.

The Suite symphonique, Op. 29, 'La nuit et le fou' (Night and the Fool) was written in Paris in 1982. Like the Image symphonique, 'La nuit et le fou' was inspired by a poem of Khalil Gibran. The two movements are strongly unified by the use of related thematic material. Remarkable in its concision, the opening Lento soon exploits the impressionistic touches of the woodwind, a lyrical clarinet theme, a frenzied rhythmic idea, evoking, in a way, Messiaen, and later a solemn brass chorale. The Misterioso starts atonally. Here the clarinet theme from the first movement permeates the whole piece in various guises. The tense atmosphere is barely illuminated towards the end by a long phrase from the upper strings, which marks, through its diatonic character, a serener contrast. The end of the work is starker in character.

The second piece in the trilogy inspired by the tragedy of Lebanon, Requiem, Op. 18, dedicated to the 'Lebanese martyrs of the war', was written in Beirut in December 1980. The tonality of B flat minor gives the work its funereal and tragic character. The introduction, one of the darkest passages by El-Khoury, brings a phrase full of threatening and mournful chromaticism on the lower strings, trombones and tuba, while the entry of the horns and trumpets, over the scattered outbursts from the bass drum, is stamped with solemnity. The funeral lament begins when a tonic pedal of B flat is heard from the lower strings and timpani. The principal theme, exceptionally long and the source of a number of later motifs, is then stated by violins and violas. The work then develops in a succession of episodes with feelings that are sometimes violent and dramatic, symbolizing the struggle against despair, and sometimes reserved and turned inwards, marking resignation before the inescapable. Shortly before the end, a final eruption of revolt, marked Patetico, in 5/4 metre, reveals a rich polyphonic conception in chromatic and orchestral writing that suggests Scriabin. The work ends with a return of the funeral procession and the principal theme.

The Poème symphonique No. 1, Op. 14, composed in Beirut in July 1980, with the subtitle Le Liban en flammes (Lebanon in Flames), is inspired by a poem by El-Khoury, written in the middle of the war, in 1976. It is the first panel of the triptych devoted to the dramatic events of the war in Lebanon.* The work reflects the composer's feelings of suffering as an individual facing the human folly that war and destruction brings. Centred on the tonality of C minor, the traditional key of dramatic expression, it unfolds in free form, in paragraphs broadly developed, and exhibits contrasted feelings stamped with sadness, revolt, melancholy and tenderness. The work makes use of themes decorated with melismas in oriental style and dance rhythms that are as it were evocations in the present of a past that has gone for ever.

The Poème for Orchestra, Op. 2, with the subtitle Le Regard du Christ, composed in Paris in 1979, at the age of 22 and dedicated to his parents, is the earliest orchestral work kept by the composer as part of his official catalogue of compositions. In this work El- Khoury wants to translate something of the mystical inspiration suggested by the look of Christ over life here below. Written in the dark tonality of B minor, this score already shows the characteristics of later works, glittering orchestration, and free form based on expressively contrasting episodes.

Gérald Hugon
English version by Keith Anderson

  * The symphony Les Ruines de Beyrouth (The Ruins of Beirut) of 1985 is the third panel of this triptych (Naxos 8.557043).

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