Persepholis: Discovering the Music of Iran

Love Songs of Hafiz, Op.26
Amir Mayhar Tafreshipour
Persian Reflection [BBC commission: World premiere]
Hormoz Farhat
Homage to Lamartine – Nouveau Rivage
Aminollah Hossein
Persepholis Symphony – fourth movement

James Edwards (tenor)

Sioned Williams (harp)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Pascal Rophé

Dastan Ensemble

Underground Band
Lincoln Abbotts (animateur)

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 24 February, 2006
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

In these grim times, it is good to be reminded that Iran offers far more than frightening news headlines. Its rich and varied culture, and its links to our own in the West, was celebrated by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a week of workshops and events culminating in two concerts, of which this was the second.

The theme gave license to programme music both by Iranian composers and by westerners influenced by contact with the near east; there were also performances of Persian classical music by the Dastan Ensemble and fusion efforts instigated by Lincoln Abbotts, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Learning Manager, ina fascinating constellation of cultural influence and traditions.

We were mercifully spared the threatened Scheherezade – Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite is heard often enough for its charms to have faded entirely – so the orientalist flag was flown by Szymanowski. His “Love Songs of Hafiz” were sung by the promising tenor James Edwards, whose clear tone was occasionally swamped by the large orchestra. Where ‘Your Voice’ was languid, ‘Eternal Youth’ was more Mahlerian, culminating in the rowdy mock-heroics of ‘Drinking Song’.

The three generations of Persian composers could all be easily understood within the western tradition. The youngest is Amir Mayhar Tafreshipour, whose harp concerto Persian Reflection received a persuasive premiere by its dedicatee Sioned Williams. Tafreshipour was inspired by ancient Achaemenid Persian carvings depicting harpists; the first movement offered glimpses of archaic monody in the solo part, breaking through Bartókianstring writing. Hormoz Farhat’s ‘Nouveau Rivage’, from his Homage to Lamartine, is a well-proportioned movement for string orchestra, depicting Lamartine’s poem “The Lake” through a rhythmic undertow that drags the music from repose into wilder emotional territory. The oldest and most dated work was Hossein’s Persepholis Symphony, which depicts the ancient city’sruins through endless repetitions of an unmemorable melody.

Of course, there is a classical music tradition native to Persia, which was represented by the virtuoso musicians of the Dastan Ensemble. Its rendition of ‘Hikayat’ showed an episodic music in which the melodies of the stringed Tar and Kamancheh are embellished by gently sonorous percussion. A younger groupof Anglo-Persian musicians, assembled with the assistance of the BBC Persian Service, performed an upbeat piece with members of the orchestra, showing how different traditions might share common ground. This was more successful than the finale, in which all the musicians assembled for a work-shopped piece that was more effective as a symbolic gesture than as a musical one.

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