About this Recording
8.573617 - EL-KHOURY, B.: Orages / Espaces-Fragmentations / Poème nocturne / Le Chant d'amour (Douguet, Prats, P. Järvi, E.G. Jensen, Gatti, D. Coleman)
English  French 

Bechara El-Khoury (b. 1957)
Orages • Espaces-Fragmentations • Poème nocturne • Le Chant d’amour

 

Commissioned by the Orchestre de Paris, Orages (Storms) was written in 2013 and first performed at the Salle Pleyel, conducted by Paavo Järvi, on 11 September 2013, as part of the orchestra’s season-opening concert.

While world events such as the First Lebanese War (Les Ruines de Beyrouth, Le Liban en flammes, Requiem, Naxos 8.557043 / 8.557691), 9/11 (New York Tears and Hope, Naxos 8.570134) and the Shoah (War Concerto) have in the past inspired El-Khoury to reflect and meditate on the human condition, several of his more recent works (Autumn Pictures, The Dark Mountain, Naxos 8.572773) reveal the influence on his musical inspiration of landscape and the natural world.

Recalling his youth in Lebanon, the composer has spoken of how he loved “the storms that broke at the end of the day, when the light was sinking into anarchy”, so loud that he could no longer hear the piano properly as he played.

Rather than the kind of physical, programmatic descriptions we find in works by Beethoven, Berlioz or Richard Strauss, El-Khoury’s music here conveys a momentary impression of the moods and atmospheres created by such chaotic natural phenomena, and of their psychological effect on people—the fear and sensory deprivation that storms can engender in us.

“The terrifying rumbling became a symphony of destruction, and the crazed flashes of lightning told the story of the earth’s journey towards the unknown, towards silence… I was a non-existent being in a majestic combat pitting the elements against the darkness!”

The “anarchy” and random nature of a storm are portrayed in non-narrative fashion, using contrasting musical materials, constantly worked and distorted in subtle fashion, arranged in a pattern outside conventional formal processes of construction.

A few landmarks to listen out for… A trumpet call harmonised with clusters, then sinister tremolo chords introduce an expressive, four-note principal motif in the low strings. Its symmetrical structure (two minor seconds, rising and falling respectively, separated by a wide interval) will thereafter be subject to multiple transformations, derivations, distortions, amplifications or condensations and inversions, particularly once the brass have made their first entry. The motif is later heard on the trombones, in a very tight canon, beneath a rhythmic ostinato on a single chord played by the trumpets. The storm briefly abates before a new atmosphere establishes itself, with alternating flashes on brass and on woodwind, and a whirling ostinato in the violins.

The only truly calm moment in the work, marked Lumineux, is made up of perfect chords with an Ivesian cosmic resonance (The Unanswered Question!). Later, a new, lyrical five-note motif, drawn from a whole-tone scale, appears eight times (like an echo of the Fifth Act of Pelléas!).

With a sudden, dramatic intensification—in the style of Penderecki—in the bass tones with strings polarised on F and then A flat, there begins a remarkable fourphase episode, introduced each time by a woodwind grouping, through which the brass can be heard in triadic harmony above dissonant string tremolos, ultimately leading to a huge section for brass derived from the principal motif.

Espaces-Fragmentations (2011) is the product of an unusual commission. In the context of a complete Beethoven symphony cycle given by the Orchestre National de France and Daniele Gatti, Radio France asked five composers each to write a work of about ten minutes’ duration that would use the same instrumentation as one of the Beethoven symphonies on the same programme. This work was performed between the Second and the Pastoral.

Speaking about Espaces-Fragmentations, El-Khoury has called it “the translation of a reflection on time—past, present and future…”. He sees a cosmic dimension of “fragmented spaces, lost in the night sky, like long-dead stars whose light has only just reached our eyes”. The work’s poetic vision is that of “a strange journey into night that crosses our world like a flash of lightning heralding a storm in a moment of precarious calm”. The work is made up of very short units of sound that give this impression of flashes, with an orchestration that continually bends and shatters to fill the sound space. The opening is characteristic, unveiling the key materials that will be transformed and combined throughout the rest of the work. We then hear a mysterious passage of static harmonies, out of which burst aerial flute figures, a new harmonic construction in dynamic progression, dense brass clashes, and an urgent cry from the high strings. Shortly after this, the timpani play an obsessive ninecrotchet rhythmic motif which, after a four-note melodic figure on horns and trumpet, takes on different, variously fragmented, forms before turning into an ominous motif also present in the orchestral cadenza of Poeme nocturne.

El-Khoury’s Poeme nocturne, Op. 80 for flute and orchestra (2009), another commission from the Orchestre de Paris, was written to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of the immensely talented and internationally renowned French flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal.

Cast in a single movement divided into three sections, the work is unusual in that it reverses the traditional rôles of soloist and orchestra—the cadenza is given to the latter, rather than to the virtuoso instrumentalist. According to the composer, this dramatic orchestral cadenza “represents the image of a mountain rising in the middle of a plain, an infinite plain, on which poetic images mingle with dreams and daydreams in space, time and silence…”

The flute, which only plays in the slow outer sections, is the bearer of dreams, mystery, contemplation and meditation—this is the nocturnal aspect of the tribute. The cadenza symbolises Rampal, the admired soloist and world-class artist, its dramatic nature reflecting the grief caused by the recollection of his death. In a spirit of universalisation, El-Khoury creates a link between his tribute to Rampal, a European musician, and the cultures of the Near East, explaining that the work “takes flight beneath the clouds of Europe and ends its journey in a sunlit eastern port, the origin of so many memories and eras across the centuries…”

The contemplative first section, the longest of the three, is lyrical and restrained throughout, its smooth surface gently disturbed towards the end by music lighter and airier in feel, before a return to the initial meditative atmosphere.

The central section, for the orchestra alone, is an astonishing piece of writing, a kind of crossroads between past and future in terms of the stylistic means employed by the composer. Numerous elements clash together in a short space of time: a tormented theme on brass and low strings, horn glissandi and fanfares, violent, harrowing two-semiquaver blows for woodwind, horns and low strings (and reused in Espaces-Fragmentations), fournote calls for the brass.

Later we hear, among other things, the four-note symmetrical motif recycled, unchanged, in a similar construction in Orages, strident soaring blasts on the flutes, and polyrhythmic textures over the kind of static harmonies heard in Lutte, the fourth movement of Les Fleuves engloutis (2001; Naxos 8.570134), as well as in the much later Orages.

The third section marks a return to the mysterious and lyrical atmosphere of the first, borrowing its materials, from which, finally, there emanates a subtle oriental fragrance.

The text of Le Chant d’amour, Op. 44, a lyric poem for soprano and orchestra, is drawn from the twenty-fourth of Lamartine’s Méditations poétiques. In setting this Romantic poem, El-Khoury employs a post-Romantic style at times reminiscent of Richard Strauss, a composer he greatly admires, as witness his recent seventh symphonic poem Elektra ‘Hommage a Richard Strauss’. Composed in Paris in May 1987, Le Chant d’amour has a lyrical expressiveness akin to that of the Méditation poétique for violin and orchestra, Op. 41 (Naxos 8.557692).

The music is here conventionally arranged around the three strophes of the sung text, the orchestra providing a prelude, two interludes and a postlude.

The orchestral introduction opens with an impassioned, lively motif on close-knit strings, alternated twice with an expressive descending phrase on violins and flutes. Then the voice enters, at first reticent, then blossoming into lyricism to the point of wonder; the oboe provides a brief bridge, derived from the first motif, which leads to a rhapsodic passage of static harmonies.

The first interlude explodes in a brass-dominated orchestra, then we hear a sumptuous tutti which ends, after a horn glissando, in a passage of lyrical string writing. In the second strophe the vocal line becomes more disjointed, although its unfinished, fractured nature in no way detracts from its expressiveness. A moving violin solo briefly evokes Strauss’s Four Last Songs. A new bridge, this time for horn, eventually joined by the rest of the brass and by another lyrical moment for the strings, introduces an ascent symbolising estrangement, flight and fragility, emphasised by chromatic writing.

The second interlude begins in the strings with parallel triadic harmonies that call to mind Sibelius; a trumpet phrase then emerges which is picked up by the clarinets, then the violins. Static or parallel harmonies continue throughout the final, recitative-like strophe. A final Sibelian touch is added by the horns to the postlude’s serene, solemn writing for strings.

Gérald Hugon
English translation: Susannah Howe


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