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ClassicsOnline Home » EL-KHOURY, B.: Violin Concerto No. 1 / Horn Concerto / Clarinet Concerto (Nemtanu, Guerrier, Messina, Masur, J.-C. Casadesus, Elts)
This fifth Naxos release of the music of the Franco-Lebanese composer Bechara El-Khoury features three concertos two of which, for wind instruments, are inspired by specific associations with the natural world of the composer’s native Lebanon. The First Violin Concerto contains allusions to Alban Berg, its outer movements divided by a virtuoso cadenza for the soloist. The composer describes his powerful Horn Concerto as ‘mountains at night… reaching up into the sky and melting into mist and space’, and the Clarinet Concerto as ‘impressions and recollections in which poetic colours link together and disappear, like an autumnal cloud’.
Bechara El-Khoury (b. 1957)
Violin Concerto No. 1 • Horn Concerto • Clarinet Concerto
Bechara El-Khoury’s work is, first and foremost, the expression of a humanist poet whose voice is both lyrical and dramatic—he is, after all, a writer as well as a composer, having published several volumes of poetry as a young man in Lebanon. Often inspired by nature, his music is conducive to meditation, recollection, dreaming, and his work titles are more likely to conjure a particular atmosphere than to suggest any programmatic content. While some make direct reference to natural phenomena, such as the recent orchestral work Orages (Storms, 2013), others have dreamlike resonances (Harmonies crépusculaires, Collinede l’étrange, Le Vin des nuages, Les Fleuves engloutis—Twilight harmonies, Hill of Strangeness, Wine of the Clouds, The Rivers Engulfed). Two concertos, The Dark Mountain and Autumn Pictures, have more specific associations with the natural world of his native Lebanon.
These poetic visions are, however, always connected to both the contemplative solitude and dramatic trajectory of the human condition. Hence the fact that he has often drawn inspiration from current affairs and historical events—the First Lebanon War (Le Liban en flammes—Lebanon in Flames, Requiem, Symphonie), 9/11 (New York Tearsand Hope) and the holocaust (War Concerto), for example—expressing through music his feelings about such tragedies of humanity.
The three concertos on this album are stylistically related in both their overall expressive conception and some of the materials they use. As always with this composer, poetic sentiment comes before the architectural concept. The result is a predilection for a narrative form of rhapsodic nature which is more concerned with the movements of subjective consciousness than with a predetermined geometric construction.
El-Khoury’s First Violin Concerto, ‘Aux frontières de nullepart’ (On the Borders of Nowhere, 1999–2002) was commissioned by the Lebanese Ministry of Culture and the Ninth Summit of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (IOF). It comprises three linked movements, the second of which, unusually, is a virtuosic cadenza for the soloist. The work as a whole is unified by a motif based on a symmetrical ascending-second figure (a major second framed by two minor seconds)—the initial intervallic structure of Messiaen’s second mode of limited transposition.
The static, mysterious introduction, highly polarised, and coloured by harmonic touches that bring together subtle orchestral alliances, features the famous fifths heard at the opening of Berg’s Violin Concerto (To the memory of anangel), a deliberate allusion intended as a tribute to a work and a composer greatly admired by El-Khoury. As the music becomes a little more animated, the main theme is heard for the first time, a broad and lyrical violin phrase accompanied by iambic (short–long) rhythms on the strings. The orchestra introduces a sudden dynamic contrast, and the music takes on a dramatic air: horn glissandi prompt a response from the trumpets, with turbulence in the strings, clashing percussion and crackling rhythms in the brass, the woodwind at times providing additional touches of colour. As the violin returns, at a slower tempo now, the main theme makes a brief return in a short, poetic transition. After a new, rapid episode, the soloist introduces the second subject, based on the unifying motif. A calmer atmosphere follows before a mysterious passage of minor arpeggios shaded by otherworldly harmonies on celesta. A dreamy lyricism prevails in the conclusion.
The cadenza has the dual function of turning the spotlight on the soloist and developing the materials employed in the first movement, the main theme in particular. Virtually all the figures are rendered unrecognisable by being fragmented, with fleetingly oriental accents and an allusion to the Bergian fifths.
Three different but characteristic forms of expression are contrasted with one another in the finale: one very fast piece of writing in continuous semi-quaver movements, based on the unifying motif and its various metamorphoses; huge roars of long notes from the brass, in which the same motif, in augmentation, can again often be heard; and lyrical outbursts in a more expansive tempo, mainly from strings and horns.
Speaking about his Horn Concerto, ‘The Dark Mountain’ (2007–2008, a Radio France commission), the composer described it as “a succession of fleeting images from several long walks in the high mountains of Lebanon during my childhood. Green or snowcapped mountains, arid, dark, sombre and silent mountains. But above all, mountains at night, in my adult imagination, where these magical places across the planet dominate the world, reaching up into the sky and melting into mist and space…” A sober and powerful work, this concerto combines a force that symbolizes nature with delicate poetic touches that bear witness to the fragile presence of mankind.
The first movement begins with disquieting string tremolos, while the horn introduces a main theme dominated by perfect and augmented fourths. A mysterious episode (for strings, harp, piano and celesta) establishes itself momentarily before the tremolos return, sustaining a secondary theme on the brass in parallel harmonies. Then, on the horn, we hear calmer, gentler music surreptitiously accompanied by the insistent iambic rhythms of the strings. A sudden dramatic orchestral contrast gives way to a free development of the various different materials, punctuated by lyrical outbursts. The agitated music reaches a climax before the cadenza, whose effects of space, silence and echoes clearly recall the mountains that inspired the work. Finally, a tranquil epilogue begins in the brass, serene and majestic.
The strange and mysterious second movement could almost be condensed into a single melodic line, a kind of solitary stroll for the horn, based on materials derived from the main theme, while the orchestra provides the harmonic framework.
The finale, dramatic one moment, lyrical the next, harks back to the forceful expressive contrasts of the first movement. It opens with massive chords within which an ascending semi-quaver motif is briefly heard on the violins. A short chromatic motif for the horn with a glissando ending signals the return of the concerto’s first theme, above a light, repeated-chord accompaniment in the strings. The initial massive chords resurface for a few moments before a long, lyrical episode for the soloist, sustained by a string ostinato. The violins’ semi-quaver motif is then crowned by the horn’s chromatic figure with glissando, leading into a passage full of delicate touches—woodwind arpeggios with piano, celesta and harp accompaniment—which opens up into a long orchestral development, before an emphatic and essentially rhythmic coda brings the work to an end.
Autumn Pictures, a clarinet concerto written between 2009 and 2010 and jointly commissioned by Musique nouvelle en Liberté-Ville de Paris and Buffet Crampon, is, according to the composer, “imagined rather than descriptive music, despite its title, which has more to do with images, products of my imagination and memories. Impressions and recollections in which poetic colours link together and disappear, like an autumnal cloud, in a journey through time, towards far-distant spaces… A piece that evokes, at one particular moment, the sky of the East…”
The soloist opens the concerto with a theme built on a four-note motif, varied melodically four times, which sets up a strong rhythmic identity, with a different time signature in each bar (4/4, 5/4, 6/4, 7/4). This theme undergoes five successive variations, three entrusted to the soloist, the others to the orchestra (brass then tutti). A brief focus on the note of E, with an ornamented clarinet line, leads into a modal and ethereal secondary theme for violins.
The first motif, initially developed by the orchestra, is picked up by the soloist and takes a folk-like turn, with its accents, tonal polarizations and imaginative, improvisatory rhythms, harmonically supported by string tremolos. After a clarinet glissando has broken the tension, a more restrained passage ensues, in which a new idea is heard on trumpet, then strings, and finally on the solo clarinet.
A nine-note mass of sound gradually builds up in the strings, introducing the concluding section, sombre in nature and brimming with emotion. Subdued autumnal colours flow from the wistful harmonies and a melancholy counter-melody played by the oboe.
The central movement is a meditative interlude whose poetic nature is not without the occasional lyrical outburst. Above static orchestral harmonies, the clarinet’s melodic line is minimalist and fragmented, using elements of the first movement’s thematic material.
A finale full of rhythmic jubilation and instrumental exuberance reverts to the folk character glimpsed in the opening movement. The main theme is derived from that of the first movement, with its changes in time signature and prevalence of fourths and fifths. Acting as a refrain, it gives the finale a rondo-like structure. A lyrical interlude allows a sicilienne for solo violin, doubled by celesta, to emerge, while the following Presto is based on a whirling semi-quaver motif—the symmetrically constructed figure used in the Violin Concerto. The first theme makes a brief reappearance, this time with a Bartókian accent. A new section sets up rapid exchanges between the soloist and some of the different instrumental families within the orchestra. The music slows again just before the return of the refrain, this time with a more polyrhythmic accompaniment from woodwind and strings. After the cadenza, and somewhat unexpectedly in such a joyful movement, we hear a short dramatic episode (featuring a trumpet theme and lyrical writing for strings and the clarinet), before the tempo resumes its breathtaking pace for the conclusion of the work.
© 2013 Gérald Hugon
Translation by Susannah Howe
Commissioned by the Lebanon Ministry of Culture and IXe Sommet de la Francophonie (Violin Concerto No. 1), Radio France (Horn Concerto), Musique Nouvelle en Liberté-Ville de Paris and Buffet-Crampon (Clarinet Concerto)
Special thanks to Vénus Ghoussoub-Chami, Patricia Hamelin-Pria, Joe Ghoussoub, Jihad Khoury, Bonja Group, Ahmal Abouzeid, Zeina Saleh-Kayali, Henri Kayali, Université NDU (Université Notre-Dame), Marie-Cécile Mazzoni, Laurent Pelissier.
This recording is dedicated to the memory of my mother Bechara El-Khoury
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