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8.557692 - EL-KHOURY: Meditation poetique / Piano Concerto / Poems Nos 1 and 2
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Bechara El-Khoury (b.1957)
Piano Concerto
Méditation poétique for Violin and Orchestra
Poems for Piano and Orchestra


Bechara El-Khoury was born in Beirut in 1957 and began his musical education in Lebanon before moving to Paris in 1979 to complete his studies with Pierre-Petit, then director of the Ecole Normale de Musique. By the time he decided to settle in the French capital, El-Khoury had already established a reputation for himself as both a composer (having written a hundred or so works between 1969 and 1978) and a poet (the first of several collections having been published in 1971), and had also been pursuing active parallel careers as a pianist, conductor, choirmaster and journalist. A major concert of his works was given on 9 December 1983 by the Orchestre Colonne, conductor Pierre Dervaux and pianist Abdel Rahman El Bacha at Paris's Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, as part of the Khalil Gibran centenary celebrations. The two Poèmes for piano and orchestra that feature on this CD had their world première on that occasion. The works of El-Khoury, who was granted French citizenship in 1987, have been performed by such prestigious ensembles as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Moscow Philharmonic, the Orchestre Colonne, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and the Orchestre Symphonique Français.

Bechara El-Khoury is that rare thing, then, both a composer and a poet. Central to all his works is a lyrical vein which transports his music far from the academic and from abstract formalism. For his earlier works he drew his inspiration principally from Lebanon, from the beauty of its landscapes, its light and its songs and dances, but also from the tragedy of the war that raged there for so many years. With more recent works, however, such as the symphonic meditation Les Collines de l'étrange, Op. 53 or Harmonies crépusculaires, Op. 55 (Naxos 8.557043), he seems to be gradually moving away from his cultural roots and towards the musical styles of the West, with which he has increasingly come into contact since 1979. His knowledge of music culture is immense, and his curiosity about contemporary music unbounded. Despite its outwardly traditional appearance, his musical idiom is by no means backward-looking, but is simply presented to us in the composer's own terms, within the multiplicity of possibilities available today. El-Khoury has a genuinely creative spirit: he shows us that in a ritualised universe where a frequent inclination is simply to follow fashion, the only way to be creative now is to be oneself, to express with conviction one's inner being and its relationship with the outer world. Anyone who listens to his Méditation poétique for violin and orchestra will be struck not so much by what the composer has calculated, planned and shaped, as by what he feels and by how he manages to communicate those feelings to us. He chooses his material and structures it in such a way as to give his works an emotional content that cannot help but touch his audience. His compositions form part of a current of contemporary music that ranges from Allan Pettersson's symphonies and Górecki's Third Symphony to the latest works by Penderecki, Rautavaara and Kancheli: music which is inextricably linked to the expression of human feelings, be they individual or collective.

The Méditation poétique, Op. 41 is a moment of purest musical emotion. It is a distillation of the composer's lyricism, beautifully conveyed by means of the fragile sound of the solo violin and a remarkably transparent orchestration. There are echoes here of the "post-romantic impressionism" touched on in his earlier Image symphonique, Op. 26 (Naxos 8.557691), that artful blend of intimacy and discreet instrumental touches discernible in some of Max Reger's late symphonic works. On the subject of the poetic content of this work, El-Khoury has written, "The violin's song comes from the grey clouds of autumn, tracing a path through the silence of nature". The initial soundscape is similar to that of the opening bars of Berg's Violin Concerto ("to the memory of an angel"): solo violin, two clarinets, harp, strings and, later, horns, bass clarinet and bassoons. After the introduction, a delicate counterpoint between the solo violin and clarinet, the phrase flows outwards, making free use of the different intervals available while never allowing any too clearly defined contours to prevail. The composer clearly wants as much variety as possible here, rhythmically too, reflecting the unexpected encounters that one might have during a walk in the country. The harmonies are fascinating and always carefully designed to add to the overall expressiveness of the music. Thus, when the brass makes its first entry into a previously ethereal, tonally shifting atmosphere, it provides a stark contrast with its ominous perfect minor chords, into the middle of which the solo violin introduces its first concertante episode within the tutti. The opening theme returns in a modified form in the solo line and then in a second orchestral tutti. Towards the end, after a few bars in which the violin plays entirely alone, a fleeting memory of a cadenza recalling the concertante nature of the work, the trumpet takes up the opening theme and asks the fundamental question: what is the outcome of the meditation? Composed in December 1986 and dedicated to Gérard Poulet, the work was premièred and recorded live at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on 29 February 1988.

The Piano Concerto, Op. 36 was composed in Paris in 1984 and is dedicated to Abdel Rahman El Bacha. It follows the lines of a traditional concerto in that it is divided into three movements, sets the soloist in opposition to the orchestra, is richly orchestrated and demands great instrumental virtuosity. As the composer himself points out, however, "with the exception of a few isolated passages, its musical treatment has nothing to do with the Romantic concerto. The themes develop from a cell that appears throughout the different stages of the work, notably in the introduction to the three movements and at various points within each, in the form of poetic and meditative improvisations which preserve the concerto's unity despite being presented quite differently from one another. The harmonies used are characterised by the contrast between simple chords that have a Romantic air and a kind of oriental ambiguity to them and other, brutally complex and at times atonal chords… Thematically the music is marked by a freedom from the academic, from the strict rules of classical form. The themes appear in the melody, the harmony and the orchestration." As for the work's emotional content, El-Khoury has said, "There are a lot of personal feelings in this concerto. What I wanted, from the bottom of my heart, was to create a dramatic piece that would reflect all the stages of an anguished personal passion … I hope I've succeeded…" The concerto was first performed at the Salle Pleyel on 17 March 1986 by the artists on this recording.

El-Khoury's Poème No. 1, Op. 11 for piano and orchestra, was written in 1980 and is dedicated to Pierre-Petit. As it meanders along, it traverses a succession of states of mind — dramatic, bucolic, dreamy and epic, some of them coloured by oriental inflections or Rachmaninov-like harmonies. The penultimate paragraph, the only one to provide a truly concertante opposition between soloist and orchestra, provides a marked contrast, being almost three times faster in tempo.

Dedicated to David Lively, Poème No. 2, Op. 22 was written a year later and presents a markedly concertante character compared to its predecessor. Its dominant, more demonstrative piano writing is dazzling, and the work treats us to romantic impulses, heroic accents and dreamlike moments before ending with a lively and sparkling coda.

Sérénade No. 1, 'Feuilles d'automne', Op. 10 for string orchestra, was composed in Paris in April 1980. A sad, slow reverie, it has an expressive tone reminiscent of the late Romanticism of Scandinavian music. The irreversible nature of the transformation of the world symbolised by the falling autumn leaves is conveyed in musical terms by a continuous downward progression, although the final bars do give a hopeful glimpse of rebirth. This piece, one of the composer's intimate miniatures, has an extreme delicacy that is testament to a musical nature of absolute modesty and sincerity.

The final item on this disc, Sérénade No. 2, Op. 20, also for string orchestra, was written in February 1981. This short piece, in which the composer's lyricism flourishes, differs from its sister-work of the previous year by virtue of its denser polyphonic writing with a basic five-part texture often enriched by divisi. The calm demeanour of the opening, its elegance recalling certain works by English composers, soon yields to a more passionate, even tormented expression, produced by the bass line's frequent chromatic progressions. The liberal use of the key of C minor lends this work even greater expressive depth.

Gérald Hugon
Translation: Susannah Howe

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