About this Recording
GP715 - Piano Recital: Primak-Khoury, Tatiana - FULEIHAN, A. / KHOURY, H. / GELALIAN, B. / BAZ, G. / SUCCAR, T. (Lebanese Piano Music)
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Between Orient and Occident Piano
Music from Lebanon


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.

“Lebanon is 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”, says composer Toufic Succar, a long-time professor of theory and the former principal of the Conservatory in Beirut. Succar was born in Tripoli in 1922 and reconciling these two worlds has been a hallmark of his entire output. Succar has written string quartets not in major or minor modes, but in Arabian quarter-tone modes such as rast and bayati. He has developed polyphonic techniques for playing the ūd and qānūn, which are traditionally monophonic instruments. He has combined twelve-note sequences with oriental rhythms and has used folk themes discovered during his fieldwork in the villages and monasteries of his homeland in his symphony. This desire to unite East and West is already evident in his Variations sur un thème oriental, Op. 2, a charming early work that Succar composed in 1947 before going to Paris to study (with Olivier Messiaen, among others). The oriental theme is that of a song that is still popular in Palestine, “Ya khalti ʿabbi j-jarra” (“Auntie, fill the jug”), which is subjected to eight ingenuously carefree variations in the European Classical style.

Succar’s cycle of variations concludes this pianistic peregrination through three generations of Lebanese music. And has maintained as clear a focus on making the country’s folk music their starting point as Succar has, the question of Lebanese identity is always there in the background. For example, Anis Fuleihan (1900–1970) also made an intensive study of Middle Eastern traditional music as early as the 1920s, and there are traces of this preoccupation in his Piano Sonata No. 9, written later, especially in the dance-like third movement. Inasmuch as he was director of the Beirut Conservatory from 1953 to 1960, and conductor of Beirut‘s orchestra during the same period, Fuleihan is one of the founding fathers of Lebanese symphonic music. Although he was the scion of an old Lebanese family, Fuleihan was born and brought up in the town of Kyrenia in Cyprus and spent most of his life in the USA, where he made a name for himself as a pianist, conductor and composer. In the 1930s he worked for the publishing house G. Schirmer and had a good network of contacts among the big names in the music world of the time. His orchestral works were premiered by the likes of John Barbirolli and Leopold Stokowski, and he himself frequently conducted the New York Philharmonic. After teaching at Indiana University for many years, Fuleihan held appointments first in Beirut and later in Tunisia, where he founded the Orchestre Classique de Tunis in 1962. Not only his biography, but also his music gives the impression that he was a focussed and vigorous cosmopolitan. His sonata fairly bristles with percussive energy and effective virtuosity, combining folk-tinged passages with others reminiscent of French Impressionism, Bartók or Stravinsky. This shimmering kaleidoscope is held together by a classical four-movement form, by a fascinating network of motifs, and above all by the lyrical main theme that opens the sonata. Not only does it recur at the end of the first movement to tame its by then turbulent motion, it also reappears at the end of the whole sonata like a soothing hymn, bringing the perpetuum-mobile finale to a peaceful close in a surprisingly lyrical coda.

The French influence that is occasionally noticeable in Fuleihan’s sonata is absolutely clear in the work of Georges Baz (1926–2012), who is a generation younger. Baz’s modest description of his own style was a “commemoration of Impressionism, enriched by small personal discoveries”. This reconnection with French culture is no accident. Lebanon was a French mandate from 1920 and maintained its association with the former colonial power even after it gained its independence in 1943. Even today, many Lebanese speak French as a second mother tongue, and the French educational system remains firmly entrenched in the country. Georges Baz too attended a francophone Jesuit school, and (like Toufic Succar and Boghos Gelalian) he had the French organist Bertrand Robillard to thank for his solid musical foundation—Robillard had been working in Beirut since the 1930s. Baz did not study in France, however, but in Siena, having been given a grant by the Italian Institute of Culture. Even then he was earning his living working in a bank, and throughout his professional life he pursued a dual career, rising to be head of the central bank of Lebanon, whilst teaching at the Conservatory in Beirut and writing reviews for the newspaper L’Orient. He was also co-founder of the Baalbek International Festival. His seven delicate Esquisses, written in 1959, are miniature musical recollections of his stay in Siena, but they are more than the impressions of a tourist: the third movement, for example, is a portrait of the Japanese avant-garde composer Makoto Shinohara, who was a friend of Baz’s, and the final movement evokes the effervescent joie de vivre of a Lebanese festival.

For those born around 1925 the civil war (1975–90) came as a major watershed. Whilst many of the younger generation (like the organist Naji Hakim or the writer Amin Maalouf) were able to build a new life for themselves abroad, most of the older generation remained in Lebanon, often living under difficult economic conditions. Boghos Gelalian (1927–2011) is said to have stoically continued giving lessons in piano and counterpoint, unmoved by bombs, sharpshooters and grenade attacks, by candlelight whenever there was a power failure. The civil war was not the first catastrophe in Gelalian’s life. He was born into an Armenian family that had fled to the Mediterranean city of Alexandretta to escape the Ottoman genocide. Already born into exile, and having lost his parents during a malaria epidemic, Gelalian (like many other Armenians) sought refuge in Lebanon when Turkey annexed Alexandretta, earning his living as a pianist in nightclubs, then working as a music arranger for radio. As musical advisor to the Rahbani brothers, he went on to play a significant role in the singer Fairuz’s rise to become a legendary icon of Arabic music. Fairuz’s son Ziad Rahbani, who later became the Lebanese left wing’s figurehead, was also one of his pupils. Despite his familiarity with jazz and light music and the Turkish and Arabic traditions, Gelalian’s own compositions are uncompromisingly modern. Their intense chromaticism occasionally verges on atonality, whilst also—astonishingly—being derived from Armenian and oriental modes. In his superb Tre Cicli of 1969, which does really feature clear cyclical forms, the Armenian influence can also be heard in the turbulent rhythms. The elegaic Canzona, by contrast, was written in 1981 during the civil war; it is followed by a Toccata with a similarly driving rhythms. Reveal a composer with an impressively strong personality, whose creativity was unfortunately sapped far too early by adverse circumstances.

These adverse circumstances—the political stalemate since the end of the civil war, the corrupt elites, the way religious identity increasingly dominates public life, the permanent dependence on foreign powers, the instability of the country and resulting lack of opportunities for individual citizens—all find an artistic echo in the work of Houtaf Khoury. Born in Tripoli in 1967 and with a doctorate in musicology, he represents the younger generation of Lebanese composers on this album. The formative influences on his work came from the Ukraine, from Kiev, where a grant enabled him to pursue his studies from 1988 to 1997. Khoury shares the scepticism of composers such as Shostakovich, Schnittke and Kancheli vis-à-vis the avant-garde’s obsession with material and the belief that music always conveys a message. His orchestral works, chamber music and compositions for piano are pleas for a more humane world. Since his return home, Khoury has often reflected the situation of the individual in a state like Lebanon—as is the case in the Piano Sonata No. 3, written in 2013. The brittle polyphony and complex, unrelenting rhythms of the first movement with its concentrations of clusters reflect, according to Khoury, “our difficult life in a country where politics shatters every dream”. The amazingly glassy, almost frozen sounds of the second movement symbolise the way life and time are frozen under the dictates of politics and religion and the powerlessness of the individual. The third movement finally brings rebellion, the search for ways out and other existential possibilities—but, according to Khoury, “this search comes to an end in the graveyard”. Houtaf Khoury’s Piano Sonata No. 3 can be heard as a pessimistic but unadornedly honest answer to the question “What is Lebanon?” But at the same time, the composer places his hope in the subversive power of art: “The Lebanese believe more in their artists than in their politicians. And I believe that we as artists can change a great deal.”

Thorsten Preuss
Translation Sue Baxter

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