El-Khoury Orchestral Works
The Lebanese composer Bechara El-Khoury, born in Beirut in 1957, completed his musical training in the Paris Ecole Normale de Musique and has subsequently, and not surprisingly, made something of a reputation there. He is now a French National. The Op 37 Symphony was composed (in 1985) in the wake of the Civil War in the Lebanon and is a powerful, tragically arresting work, laid out in four fairly traditional movements. But it is without any kind of conventional development of ideas.
It opens with an uncompromisingly strident chord, then the clarinet introduces the leitmotif on which the whole piece is based. The tormented first movement brings myriad changes of tempo and atmosphere; in essence it is a kalaidescopic set of brief variants. It is followed by a lighter-textured, insistently rhythmic Misterioso Scherzo in 5/4 time. But pungent brass interruptions allow no real respite until the solo clarinet returns to introduce the poignantly lyrical Poetico interlude, before the remorseless brass lead to the Tragique and often vehement finale – dominated by the work’s principal motif. The closing bars form a calm epilogue for strings alone.
Even more than the vividly scored Symphony, the three shorter works rely a great deal on orchestral textures, with contrasting sonorities, dynamics, mood, and colouring, all skilfully manipulated to give an illusion of forward movement (rather than development). The brass scoring is emphatic, with exuberant use of yelping horns. The restless symphonic meditation Colline de l’étrange (‘Hill of Strangeness’) is ‘a journey through a fog pierced by glimpses of light’ and is concerned with ‘solitude and the struggle of the light to come through dark clouds’. It is certainly enigmatic.
Harmonies crépusculaires was written in memory of the conductor Pierre Dervaux and is essentially slow and sombre, but the finality and desolation of death are powerfully conveyed by more shattering brass interruptions, with an answering tolling bell. The dream-like Le vin des nuages (‘Wine of the Clouds’) is a confrontation between silence and the violence of nature,’ opening impressionistically, and ending with a torrent of sound, trumped by the composer’s characteristic horn glissandi.
El-Khoury’s orchestral sound world is very much his own: it has a remarkable range of orchestral devices, and in performances as powerfully committed and brilliantly recorded as this, he is undoubtedly a new voice to be reckoned with. If the nearest he gets to melody is too fragmented to deserve such a description, undoubtedly the main idea on which the Symphony draws is recognisably indelible, and so the work’s complexities steadily unravel with repeated listening. Which is surely the advantage of an inexpensive exploratory CD like this.