Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Arabesque: piano music from the Middle East and North Africa

11 April 2023

A pianistic fusion of cultures at the Wigmore Hall.

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

When a performer makes it clear they’re going to explain all the pieces they play, one’s heart often sinks, as lengthy off-book utterances have a habit of detracting from the music. The pianist Marouan Benabdallah, though, brings an enthusiastic charm to his short introductions, and given that the music he played will have been new to many listeners, it provided an infectious touch of informed fervour to the subsequent listening experience, and his Moroccan/Hungarian heritage made him the ideal champion for these crossover works.

Billed as ‘piano music from the Arab world’, Tuesday evening’s concert included pieces by composers from Algeria (Salim Dada), Syria (Dia Succari, Amer Ali), Lebanon (Zad Moultaka), Israel (Paul Ben-Haim), Egypt (Mohammed Fairouz), Morocco (Nabil Benabdeljalil), and, as an encore piece, Turkey (Fazıl Say), many of them training at conservatoires in Western Europe. The surprise here was not so much the fusion of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ musical forms, but the fusion of eras. With the exception of Succari and Ben-Haim all of the composers were born in the latter half of the 20th century, and yet the ‘Western’ influences on the music were largely from 80 years or more earlier, and one could hear echoes of Chopin, Liszt, Fauré and the French Impressionists in many of the works presented. The pieces were also full of Middle Eastern musical tropes. Interpreting Arabic maqamat (modes) on a pianoforte is a challenging task, as the quarter-tones inherent in the music – easily singable, or playable on a stringed instrument – are impossible on a piano that is tuned in fixed semitones, but the use of pentatonic patterns, and the classic intervals at the top of the harmonic minor scale were all present, along with unusual rhythmic patterns based on 7 and 10 beats. Some of the pieces also involved imitation of stringed instruments (such as the Turkish saz) by Benabdallah using string piano techniques – pressing on the piano strings with a hand while playing them to produce a more muted and ‘bent note’ sound.

The pieces were, within these overall frames of reference, full of variety and delight. The empty unison beginning of Dada’s Aurore de Djurdjura was atmospheric and contrasted well with the busier, more rhythmic Danse Zaydan from the same suite. A fluid grace was inherent in Succari’s Samah and Danse de Leila, that put one in mind of Debussy. Amer Ali is a self-taught composer in his 30s, and his 2012 work Tableau, while containing hints of Ravel, is nonetheless a tour de force of pyrotechnic piano writing, and proved, in terms of a demonstration of Benabdallah’s virtuosity at the instrument, to be the shape of things to come, as he subsequently tackled the rapid-fire Lisztian fistfuls of notes of Ben-Haim’s Toccata and Benabdeljalil’s Raqsa with equally ferocious concentration, energy and accuracy.

“…his Moroccan/Hungarian heritage made him the ideal champion for these crossover works”

Perhaps the most fascinating of the pieces were three movements from Zad Moultaka’s 2002 work Zàrani, based on Andalusian muwashshahs; here was a soundworld of percussive ‘growls’ from the bottom end of the keyboard, finger-stopped notes, relentless ostinati, busy rhythmic figures, notes decorated with runs, fearsome contrapuntal deluges and full use of the whole span of the piano.

It wasn’t all fireworks, though, and tender moments were beautifully outlined in the diaphanous Pastorale from Ben-Haim’s Op. 34 and the 1992 Nocturne by Benabdeljalil.

The final piece of the programme was Saint-Saëns’ Op. 89 Africa, a work inspired by the composer’s visit to Egypt originally for piano and orchestra, but arranged by Benabdallah for solo piano. To be honest, apart from its incorporation of pentatonic material, there are few obvious 19th century ‘Arabic’ flourishes in the work, and listeners of the period might not have been transported to the Cairo of their imaginations, but it’s a colourful, moody piece full of industrious counterpoint, and the astonishing workout provided by Benabdallah’s transcription (which pulled in much of the orchestration as well as the original solo piano part) once again demonstrated the excellence of his keyboard technique.

“Who are these bold people?” Benabdallah quipped in reference to the audience who had taken a chance on this eclectic music. The answer was clear at the close of the concert: people who had enjoyed a new, thought-provoking, delightful, and, above all, brilliantly played programme.

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Arabesque: piano music from the Middle East and North Africa