Egypt – ancient and modern

With its epic setting in ancient Egypt, Verdi’s opera Aida was first performed, appropriately, at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo on Christmas Eve, 1871. The conductor was Giovanni Bottesini, whose Messa da Requiem (Naxos 8.572994) was among our new releases last month.

The lavish backcloth of pyramids, palaces and temples was used to even greater effect by filmmakers for the story of Cleopatra – in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 cinematic version, for example, and the 1963 technicolour production directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

The country has been experiencing less glossy times recently. Following the overthrow of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in what is now known as the Arab Spring of revolutions, Egypt became the second country to overthrow its government with the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power just over two years ago.

mohammed-fairouzThe scenes of protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square live on not only in the memory, but also in the music of Mohammed Fairouz, whose concerto Tahrir for Clarinet and Orchestra featured in a documentary produced by PRI’s The World* a year after the bloody scenes played out. Fairouz wrote the piece in memory of those who were killed during the protests. The documentary reached an estimated audience of 75 million.

BBC World News reported an even greater number of 200 million for its follow-up piece on Fairouz as he collaborated with Shakti Mohan, a dancing star in India. She joined him in New York (where he now lives) to devise a choreographed routine for a new piece that Fairouz was creating for string quartet and Klezmer clarinet.

Fairouz’ melding of Middle-Eastern modes and Western structures has become an increasingly familiar and respected presence on the contemporary music scene:

“… an important new artistic voice” – New York Times
“…[a] postmillennial Schubert.” – Gramophone
“One of the most talented composers of his generation” – BBC World News

The Arab-American composer’s distinctive sound world is now featured in Native Informant (Naxos American Classics 8.559744), one of this 8.559744_slipcasemonth’s new releases. Fairouz’ Cairo-Tahrir nerve still tingles in the central movement of his suite for solo violin that gives the disc its title. “The movement, For Egypt, is a lamentation of both intimate sadness and outright grief at the loss of civilian life in the 2010-11 Egyptian Revolution,” Fairouz says.

This theme of struggle alternates with more robust and optimistic tracks, however, on the 6-work recital of instrumental and vocal chamber music, all recorded here for the first time and discussed in our latest podcast, with Fairouz in conversation with Gail Wein:

“I think what’s always fascinated me,” Fairouz says, “is this concept of story. “You can walk on the streets of Cairo and find people reciting poetry out loud and people will be assembled around them in cafes and people will be crying, moved to tears by this concept of reading poetry out loud; it translates very, very naturally into the recital.”

Before we sign off on Egpyt, let’s remember a couple of associated works that have happily brought more pleasure than pain.

Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No 5, Egyptian (Naxos Classical Archives 9.80478) featured in the 2011 BBC Promenade Concerts, with Stephen Hough as soloist. Its nickname derives not only from its point of origin (it was composed in Luxor, Egpyt) but also from its integration of regional melodies. Saint-Saëns also manipulates exotic colours from the piano in the slow movement, notably the peculiar resonances of the qunan, or Arab zither. Hough raised the roof when he returned to the platform after his brilliant Proms performance to play an encore wearing a fez!

8.557358-60From a biblical perspective on the country, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt (Naxos 8.570966-67) is as much a delight for its vibrant choruses as its ingenious word-painting with Handel’s use of mercurial, buzzing strings to imitate flies in He spake the word, thundering brass and timpani in He gave them hailstones for rain and the comical rhythmic and melodic jauntiness in Their land brought forth frogs. The cited recording is by Kevin Mallon and the Aradia Ensemble, who can be heard in another of this month’s new releases: Handel’s Concerti Grossi, Op 6 (Naxos 8.557358-60), described by Mallon as “the best of their kind.”

“I adore Handel,” the American-born conductor says. “He enjoyed success as a very young man – volatile, vital, boundlessly energetic. These works are perfectly put together in structure, and I like to think we reflect this in our performances.

“Music in [that] time was intensely fresh. One of the things I like best about the early music movement is that we always try to bring this music forward as though it had been written yesterday.”

Why not sample the 3-disc set today, while it’s at its freshest?

*PRI’s The World is a co-production of WGBH/Boston, Public Radio International and the BBC World Service.