FAIROUZ Tahwidah.4 Chorale Fantasy.2 Native Informant: Sonata for Solo Violin3. Posh.4 For Victims.2,5 Jebel Lebnan6 • 1Mellissa Hughes (sop); 1DavidRead more Krakauer (cl); 2Borromeo Str Qrt; 3Rachel Barton Pine (vn); 4Christopher Thompson (baritenor); 4Steven Spooner (pn); 5David Kravitz (bar); 6Imani Winds • NAXOS 8.559744 (78:22 Text and Translation)
This exceptionally varied and complex album features five first recordings of works by young American-Arabic composer Mohammed Fairouz (b. 1985), whose Piano Sonata impressed me when I reviewed the DVD by pianist Steven Spooner. I bristled, as I always do, to read the dreaded and hackneyed words on the CD insert that Fairouz “is one of the most frequently performed, commissioned, and recorded composers of his generation” (italics mine). Well, what the heck generation could he possibly be part of but his own? Did you expect him to be the most frequently performed and recorded composers of his father’s generation?
But promotional semantics aside, Fairouz is a remarkably talented and highly original composer—no more so than some others nowadays who, living in America, combine the music of their ethnic cultures with European and/or American classical structures, but certainly one of the most interesting and communicative of such composers, which I suppose is what moves him to the top of his profession. Certainly, any CD that displays the combined talents of such well-known and/or outstanding talents as the Borromeo Quartet, Rachel Barton Pine, Steven Spooner, and the Imani Winds—all of whom, incidentally, are on my short list of favorite performers whose recordings I try to seek out for review—is testimony enough to the high quality of Fairouz’s music.
We begin this journey with Tahwidah, the setting of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish for soprano and clarinet. The text—which, surprisingly, is actually included in the booklet (along with all the other sung texts on this disc)—concerns the lullaby of a mother to her son, only to discover at the end that she is singing this at his funeral. The music is thus lyrical but strangely dissonant, beginning with exotic and difficult runs and trills on the clarinet, into which the soprano voice intermixes in a surprising and interesting fashion. Thank heavens, Mellissa Hughes has a pure, radiant voice, devoid of unsteadiness or wobble, and her singing is extraordinarily well phrased and emotionally moving. As in the case of so many modern-day sopranos, however, her English diction is exceedingly poor. Without the text to follow, you won’t be able to make out a single word. A small but important criticism, not meant in a mean-spirited way, but Mellissa, please work on your diction!
This is followed by Chorale Fantasy, which the composer describes as a song that combines the Arabic mode maqam “with gentle counterpoint,” leading from a songlike melody to a whirling dance. It was commissioned by the Borromeo Quartet, which plays it here. Perhaps not so curiously, the Solo Violin Sonata—commissioned by and played by Rachel Barton Pine—almost sounds, in its first movement, like an extension of the quartet, so lyrical and songlike is its melodic structure.
I was stunned here by the extraordinary range of colors that Pine extracts from her instrument, ranging from bright, sharply pointed passages reminiscent of Heifetz to warm, rich playing in the mid and lower ranges that sounded like Oistrakh. The second movement, “Rounds,” is a vigorous Arabic round dance (as per the composer’s notes), played with tremendous passion and energy, following which is a lament for the civilian victims of the Egyptian Revolution. This movement, which begins and ends very high up in the violin’s range, moves down to mid-range chordal passages which later incorporate microtonal slides (probably Arabic influenced) and, as in so much of Fairouz’s music, an exceptional singing quality that I feel is related to the song tradition of such composers as Ned Rorem. The composer describes the fourth movement as “just plain fun,” based on “the retro spirit of New York’s cabaret music,” supposedly emulating Gershwin and Porter, but I heard this music as oddly related to Eastern European folk-dance music and Eastern European-American forms, yet with an Arabic accent. At one point, Pine is required to play pizzicato counterpoint to her own top line on the violin. The final movement, which combines the feeling of both a lullaby and a lament, is titled “Lullaby of the ex-Soldat.” Fairouz says that he also conceived this movement as a tribute to Pine’s baby daughter Sylvia Michelle as a “celebration of birth and renewal.” With the possible exception of the first movement, I’d say that Fairouz has accomplished a Herculean task here, writing a sonata for unaccompanied violin that doesn’t owe much to the solo violin sonatas and partitas of Bach. I can only hope that it becomes a staple of the violin repertoire. This is, by the way, also the longest work on this disc.
Following this is Posh, a short song cycle (three pieces totaling 8:22) based on poems by Wayne Koestenbaum. These poems are not intended to “tell a story,” but merely to give an indication of a life: one song (poem) of a baby and his inability to cope with life without help, of “deadbeat dads” and dreams of the future; the second of a hapless adolescent searching for Ned Rorem songs; and third of an adult whose father “brings to mind the self-slaughtered Walter Benjamin.” This cycle is sung by “baritenor” Christopher Thompson, who has an unusual velvety timbre and, yes, qualities of both baritone and tenor. His diction is also superb, in sharp contrast to Hughes, and in the second song he makes one smile with his unusual way of bringing humor out when he sings. As usual, Spooner’s playing is also excellent, albeit subdued in this particular role as accompanist. Fairouz’s scoring for the piano here is primarily that of gently rocking notes and/or soft chime chords.
For Victims is described as “a dramatic scene for baritone and string quartet” based on two poems of David Shapiro, but although there are two movements only the second includes the sung poems. Here the Borromeo Quartet plays with a sense of sadness combined with drama, the music in the first movement vacillating between Eastern and Western modes, occasionally juxtaposing themes rather than engaging in actual development. As it turns out Shapiro’s poems, like many similar works, are about the Holocaust, the first a memorial to its victims and the second a personal memory of his grandfather emerging “in a synagogue” with his “sweet tenor coloratura” while he wonders if the dead are “permitted to sing.” Here the quartet’s role is more subdued and subservient to the vocal line. Baritone David Kravitz, unfortunately, has a woofy and tremulous voice, and his diction is only occasionally clear, which is very unfortunate as the music is exceptionally interesting and well written.
The last work, Jebel Lebnan, translates as Mount Lebanon, and is a lament for the lives lost at the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla Refugee Camps caused by Phalange Party chief Bashir Gemayel. An interlude for flute is followed by a funeral march entitled “Ariel’s Song,” then a “reawakening” musically described by a celebratory dance to the resilience of the Lebanese people. The final movement, “Mar Charbel’s Dabkeh,” is yet another Arabic round dance. Since I am a huge fan of the Imani Winds, perhaps I am prejudiced in favor of nearly all their performances, which I always find to be rhythmically incisive, colorful in their manipulation of timbre and accent, and emotionally involved in every respect, thus I was immediately rapt by their extraordinary treatment of the opening passage, described by the composer as “a wild scream” for clarinet and piccolo. The music here, punctuated by interjections from the horn and clarinet, is continually underscored by a staccato ostinato figure played by the bassoon. The solo flute interlude is lyrical, yet with telling pauses in the musical line possibly indicating thought or meditation on the part of the flutist. It has a particularly forlorn sound that, to me, indicates such emotions. Interestingly, the solo bassoon line which opens “Ariel’s Song” sounds like a continuation of the flute lament. The other instruments of the quintet enter and exit, either singly or in pairs, but the bassoon generally dominates this lament. (I would also like to point out, for the benefit of those who don’t know, that the Imani Winds are four-fifths women musicians, which I believe is somewhat unique in the classical world.) The dance movement, surprisingly, also starts out slowly, only gradually increasing the tempo within the first dozen or so bars. It’s a cheerful little piece but not terribly uptempo—more of a relaxed dance than a frenetic one. After a short pause in the middle, Fairouz switches gears to his “little song,” which is more meditative and reflective than celebratory. This, in turn, leads into the “Dabkeh” or round dance, which begins with meditative passages played by the flute but then moves into a very sprightly dance rhythm. An Arabic round dance this may indeed be, but to my ears it has a great similarity to a horah!
Despite my small reservations on the diction of two of the singers and the singing voice of a third, I consider this one of the most interesting, varied, and engaging classical albums of the year so far, and one I shall undoubtedly be putting on my Want List.
Poshby Mohammed Fairouz Performer:
Chris Thompson (Baritone),
Steven Spooner (Piano)
For Victims by Mohammed Fairouz Performer:
David Kravitz (Bass)
Borromeo String Quartet
Jebel Lebnanby Mohammed Fairouz Orchestra/Ensemble:
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Intense young composerMay 7, 2013By Arthur Leonard (New York, NY)See All My Reviews"I've heard several performances of music by Fairouz in the past few years, as he is becoming a big presence on the NYC new music scene. Just last week I heard performances of two pieces from this CD at a concert - different performers, however - and was swept away by the music, as I was when I first heard the CD. Fairouz is definitely worth exploring, and this disc gives a good variety of music. Best is To the Victims, a Holocaust memorial piece. Thanks to Naxos for taking the risk of recording contemporary works."Report Abuse