I think I should come clean right from the start. I have known Bechara for well over fifteen years, and have reviewed each of his earlier CDs. He also composed a piano piece for me in 2006, the still unpublished ‘Walking in London’ Op. 72. Learning this gave me a good opportunity to try to get inside his quite complex harmonic language. This is, though, the first time I have encountered his Piano Sonatas.
Bechara El-Khoury was born in Lebanon but has lived in Paris since early manhood. He comes from a Christian background, and this is often reflected in his titles and inspiration, as here with his Sonata No 3. But let’s consider the Sonatas in the chronological order.
The Piano Sonata No. 1 is the only one in three movements. The middle slow movement is the only one of the set that might be called classical in format, although the outer movements are liberally animated by divergent tempo markings. At less than ten minutes, it feels its way into the Piano Sonata tradition. Fourteen years later, with several orchestral works behind him, El-Khoury approaches the 2nd Piano Sonata in a confident and personal way. The nine-minute Lento con sereno is almost minimalist in construction. In the astonishingly virtuosic Presto con fuoco, all the pent-up young man’s anger surfaces.
There is one thing I have especially learned from playing ‘Walking in London’ and from listening to the 1st Sonata’s slow movement. Although the harmonies seem to be attained through a somewhat random haze of whole-tone patterns, mixed with open fourths and fifths and complex tonal clusters, in fact there is a careful sense of repetition and development of ideas by adding extra pitches or subtly moving the rhythmic emphasis. In the 1st Sonata the ideas crowd upon each other rather too much, considering the brevity of the work, but in the 2nd sonata the almost paucity of ideas creates its own world which engulfs the listener in a placid calm and then its contrasting violence.
The slow harmonic process found in the first movement of Sonata No. 2 is matched in what is perhaps El-Khoury’s most significant orchestral work composed between the 2nd and 3rd Sonatas: New York, Tears and Hope Op. 65 (Naxos 8.570134) completed in 2005. The effect is one of a vast prayer, constantly rising, not utterly dark and yet not utterly uplifting. The composer’s Christian spirituality shines through the wide harmonic spaces of his orchestral cathedral. At times of despair or darkness people (re)turn to faith and prayer often communally. This leads us to the Piano Sonata No 3 ‘Jesus, Child of the Sun’.
The structure of this work is very similar. A slow opening movement Serein et méditatif is followed by an energetic Rapide et vif which is almost ecstatically hot headed until its surprisingly reflective coda. The title ‘Jésus, L’Enfant du Soleil’ would seem to offer an inspiration from Messiaen. I am not sure if the composer acknowledges this but the slow-moving tonal clusters and bell-like sonorities certainly call the older master to mind. One might again think of the first movement of the 2nd Sonata. And I suppose any composer working in France in the second half of the 20th Century could not help but be so influenced. Here in the 3rd sonata the balance between the two movements works better than in the 2nd Sonata; the first movement is shorter, and the faster one more developed.
As El-Khoury’s grew in confidence, you may say, as a composer of Piano Sonatas, seven years later he tackled writing an even longer one: the Sonata No. 4 ‘Dans la nuit’. He decided to stick with the same two-movement format. Lento inquieto has a central fugue, and Prestissimofrenetico a “profusion of dramatic sound gestures” (Gérald Hugon’s excellently detailed booklet notes.) But it does not stay ‘frenetico’ for long. For much of its course, it is imbued with strangely homophonic bell-like textures, and ends with them. The first movement mixes atonal single lines with almost romantic chordal gestures. It is almost as if these ideas are all contrasting visions passing in the night. It all works very beautifully. For me this sonata is the one I find most involving and moving.
The concluding three works on the CD are shorter but I would not exactly call them miniatures. Rivers falls again into the bi-partite structure with an enchanting ‘Calme et méditatif’ opening, and then a wild and coruscating virtuosic second part. The reason for the title may be that in the first part we have an often repeated triplet pattern, and in the second a flood of stormy emotions, which to me seem rather over-emphasised. It was written for the Marguerite Long Piano Competition.
The remaining two pieces, Étude and Thème and Variations, were – like the Sonata No. 1 – written for the École Normale de Musique de Paris. The Étude relates to the faster music already encountered but has a wide variety of articulations and contrasted dynamics. The Thème and Variations, as Gérald Hugon says, “explores micro-form”. A “compact theme three bars long” is followed by five well-differentiated variations.
The performances by Giacomo Scinardo, to whom this last sonata is dedicated, are exemplary, wonderfully clear and passionate. They allow space and meditation its appropriate place within this unique soundworld. The recording is mostly very acceptable but I wonder if I am alone in not always enjoying the sound spectrum of piano recordings on Naxos.
For those who have explored El-Khoury’s orchestral music, this disc will supplement their knowledge ideally. For those new to his music, perhaps one of the orchestral discs would be a good place to start. I would suggest Naxos 8.557691 with the symphonic poem Lebanon in Flames on it. But I recommend his work to all without hesitation.
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