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Penguin Guide, January 2009

In many ways this is the finest of these El-Khoury compilations, and in New York, Tears and Hope offers the first major orchestral piece concisely reflecting the human experience of 9/11. Opening poignantly, it moves to a petrifying climax, and ends elegiacally, but without a trace of despair. The intensely concentrated Sextet (arranged for full string ensemble at the request of Shlomo Montz) is only five minutes in length, and might be regarded as a companion work, a wistfully dark lamentation, but suddenly quickening and moving out of the clouds. Les Fleuves englouties is a series of impressionistic miniatures, contrasting serenity and struggle with confident life-assertion. The two closing piano pieces similarly move from reflection of responses which are more fragmented but positive. The performances are very persuasive indeed and excellently recorded.

American Record Guide, April 2007

Franco-Lebanese composer Bechara El­Khoury is better known in Europe than in America. Maybe this sensational recording will change that. The two opening works are big, spacious tone poems full of shimmering orchestration and long Mahlerian lines. As I often do with new music, I put them on fresh, without reading explanatory notes. I would never have guessed that New York, Tears and Hope was a 9-11 memorial: though somber and serious, it seems too sensuous and appealing to the ear. This seductiveness is not necessarily a disadvantage: perhaps the victims of this atrocity deserve something different from the self-consciously grief-stricken laments we have come to expect. This piece opens with beautiful, mysterious pedals, erupts into savagery, and concludes with a thrilling major-key coda suggesting transcendence; it works well either as a 9-11 threnody or an abstract exercise in orchestral sonority.

The Rivers Engulfed, from 2001, is also beautifully conceived and orchestrated, with echoes of Debussy's La Mer. One of the main pleasures of this album is hearing the London Symphony blow the roof off with new music that brings out maximum color and drama in every section, especially brass, percussion, and timpani. Naxos's recording, though made in two venues, Abbey Road Studios and the Barbican, is consistent in its boldness and resonance.

The smaller works, two for piano, the other for 24 violins, fall under the considerable shadow of these orchestral showpieces, though they do illustrate EI-Khoury's imagination and resourcefulness in smaller forms. Again, it's sound for its own sake-the manner of its sensual expansion and poetic disintegration is the emphasis. The piano pieces, both in their lyricism and shattering violence, are a bit reminiscent of Messiaen. ('Forgotten Fragments' does go on a bit too long.) Pianists Hideki Nagano and Dimitri Vassilakis play them with fierce commitment.

This is a dramatic and impressive release. Can Naxos please give us more of this fascinating composer?

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, February 2007

Bechara El-Khoury is a Lebanese composer who was born in Beirut in 1957. Having lived through many experiences with that country it should come as no surprise that a large amount of his music is connected with themes such as the atrocities of the war in his homeland, peace, and the quest for brotherhood among disparate peoples. The two principal works on this recording express this.

The Rivers Engulfed is about the short time that man has when passing through life. The five movements, ‘Fog’, ‘Song of Silence’, ‘Alert’, ‘Struggle’, and ‘Song of the Rivers’ explore the various moral, physical, and spiritual endeavors that man must overcome and achieve in order to successfully pass through life in a meaningful manner. This is a nicely done tone poem that works musically even without the program notes.

New York, Tears and Hope (2001-2005) is a threnody dedicated to the victims of 9/11, to those who found themselves caught up in an extraordinary moment of human degradations and chaos, thru no fault of their own. The work is a powerful, static piece of music that allows a more meditative reflection on the events of that day, as opposed to trying to preach something in a more vociferously musical manner. It leads through shock and despair to the triumph of the human spirit and the necessity for remaining strong in the face of mindless oppression.

The Sextet for violins was written with the idea that at least six players needed to take part, but that multiples of each part were preferred. In this recording we have a total of 24 players—the violin section of the London Symphony. The piece is short, and was commissioned as part of the master classes of violinist Shlomo Mintz.

Waves is another tone poem, this time for piano alone, describing in vivid musical detail the rollicking and momentous motion of the waves of the ocean, waves that, according to the composer, can be “the origin of several tragedies, wiping out cities and peoples, with the violence of a flash of lightning”. The piece is chewy and affecting, parts of it even reminding me of George Crumb in the massive piano chords.

Forgotten Fragments is also for piano alone, and this time the program is not so definitive; indeed, it deals with themes and thematic cells in a way that will bring to mind some of Schoenberg’s piano music, albeit not as clearly structured. This is an interesting album, largely tonal, and certainly accessible. For the Naxos price it is an easy way to get to know this composer, and the performances and engineering are all unfailingly of high quality.

Lesley Sly
Australian Hi-Fi, January 2007

These are world premiere recordings…Though his central themes are love and peace, the inspiration for the title piece—a response to September 11—was horror and violence. In fifteen minutes it rises—from a tense shimmering opening passage of cold, subdued fifths played in the upper register of violins, and piano and harp—in a great wave of grief, depicted by roaring strings edged with dissonance and thunderous timpani. With extended lyrical passages and a dark pulsing undertow, he captures feelings of desolation and sorrow. Finally, a short coda brings a ray of hope to this lament.

It’s a powerful work, influenced by Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Nono, and Martinu. Piano features in many of his works and in the nearly 12-minute Waves, for Piano, Op 60, he also juxtaposes beauty and sadness with special lyricism and manic block chording. These emotive hallmarks of searing intensity and jagged radiance are evident in other works here, for orchestra, violin sextet, and piano, El-Khoury can’t be described as easy listening: this is demanding, disturbing and complex music.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, October 2006

This disc, which mixes orchestral works with piano pieces, is the fourth Naxos CD devoted to music by this striking and increasingly fascinating Lebanese-French composer. Naxos’s example shows the kind of terrific commitment that contemporary composers need. El-Khoury has literally struck the right note with both Naxos and with his growing band of admirers.

The first work on the disc should have received its first performance in New York just as I write (September 2006). It is in memory of the victims of 9/11 and is given the wonderful title of ‘Tears and Hope’ - tragedy and expectation side by side. The composer contacted me as I was preparing this review to say that due to security difficulties its performance has been postponed for twelve months. So you can only hear it on CD at present.

The music was begun a few years ago but started to coalesce when the composer began to consider the terrible events of 9/11. Here is a work in respect of which you may feel that any composer who would write such a composition is either naïve or stupid. But El-Khoury is neither of these things. He has written a heartfelt plea for peace and love across all nations. It starts from a mood of dark despondency, even resignation. Over a long pedal, little scatterings of almost apologetic sounds can be picked out seemingly at random. The music then rises through pain to an uplifting ending. For me the joy at the end is too easily attained. The huge major chord achieved a little too easily but this does not take away the aching beauty of this masterpiece. Perhaps future conductors will just hold back the tempo a little more in the last dozen bars or so to make the final chord even more telling.

The second work is also orchestral. I had the privilege of hearing it open the last Master Prize concert in the Barbican about three years ago. Its birth and original commission is somewhat unusual. ‘The Rivers Engulfed’ (Les Fleuves engloutis) was broadcast a movement at a time. This curious state of affairs is explained in the excellent booklet notes by Gérald Hugon: "the composer had to write a work of about ten minutes comprising five sections each of which was to reflect, in miniature form, a particular state of the piece within the work as a whole … The aim was to allow the progressive entry of listeners into a work through repeated hearings over a weekend in the course of several broadcasts" - would BBC Radio 3 consider such an idea? - "The work was then repeated complete at the end of the weekend." That is why in making up a work of just over thirteen minutes there are five well-contrasted sections all with different titles like ‘ Song of Silence’ and ‘Struggle’. The mood is often sombre but broken by dramatic and powerful passages evoking, as I have noted in his music before, a vast biblical landscape. ‘Tears and Hope’ starts carefully over a deep pedal and gradually sets out on its adventure of sound before almost ending as it began. The work was very adequately recorded at the aforementioned Master Prize final and it is that which is presented here.

Bechara El-Khoury enjoys bipartite forms. It seems to me that these are different from Binary structures. One tends to think of the latter as two equals: A+B. In bipartite form one section may be longer than the other, or carry more weight emotionally even if it is shorter. The ‘Sextet’, here in a version for string orchestra, ’Fragments Oubliés’ and ‘Waves’ fall into this category. Other works to a similarly plan include the 2nd Piano Sonata op. 61 and the ‘Quintet à vent’ Op. 46.

When writing for the piano he is a far more harmonically radical composer than in the orchestral works which can often touch, if not even stray into, tonality. These two piano works are striking in their dissonance and harmonic instability, especially the faster sections. ‘Fragments Oubliés’ begins chromatically, almost like early twelve-tone Schoenberg, feeling its way towards its ideas. After five minutes the fragments flit across the soundscape and eventually coalesce into a rapid and vapid array of notes using the entire keyboard in a quixotic display of fireworks. ‘Waves’ is likewise harmonically unstable and experimental. We are reminded of the good and bad side of the effects of water and floods. Again, good and evil, joys and sufferings are represented. These are two sides of a coin, the theme we met in the first work, Tears and Hope. These are bi-partite contrasts, side by side. Michael Tippett heads the score of ‘A Child of Our Time’ "the darkness declares the glory of the light", and later famously writes "I would know my shadow and my light".

This is what Bechara El-Khoury is constantly exploring and no doubt still will in future works, and, I believe, even more profoundly.

I know that the composer was grateful for and proud, pleased, and excited by the meticulous performances his music received here. He was present at the recordings and you can be sure that what you hear is what he intended and that the performers have likewise found his music moving and exhilarating all at once.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group