The Golden Road to Samarkand – Delius’s Hassan with the Britten Sinfonia – Joseph Tawadros performs on the oud

Joseph Tawadros


Three Stages of Hindsight [world premiere; arranged Tawadros and orchestrated Alex Palmer]


Delius Hassan

Joseph Tawadros (oud)
Zeb Soanes (narrator)

Britten Sinfonia Voices

Britten Sinfonia
Jamie Phillips

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 10 February, 2023
Venue: Milton Court Concert Hall, London

The title for this concert alluded to the subtitle of the once-famous play by James Elroy Flecker, Hassan … The Golden Journey to Samarkand, Delius’s complete incidental music for which (1923) formed the major part of this performance. Musically, however, it was more a case of East meeting West on ground somewhat closer to the latter, as the English-born Delius’s work followed three compositions by the Australian-Egyptian musician Joseph Tawadros for the oud, the Arabic precursor to the European lute.

Samarkand is merely the destination to which the play’s eponymous character, and Izaak the doctor at the Baghdad court of Harun al-Rashid, set out – on part of the great trading route of the Silk Road – at the end of the narrative, having become disgusted with that caliph’s tyrannical rule after the grisly execution of rebel leader Rafi alongside his lover, Pervaneh, whom the caliph had captured to be made a slave in his harem. Elroy Flecker’s story is rather in the style of the Arabian Nights (that caliph is the same one who inhabits the pages of those tales, as also his vizier Jafar, who features in the play too) and it was digested by Meurig Bowen as a spoken narration around the musical numbers, given here by Zeb Soanes with lively characterisation of the various figures who appear.

To Delius’s credit, the score exhibits hardly any of the hackneyed musical ‘Orientalisms’ of the period. Although stylistically eclectic like much of his work, the accent remains identifiably his, to which Jamie Phillips and the Britten Sinfonia responded sensitively and warmly, from the plangent and yearning opening for a combination of reedy instruments (cor anglais, bassoon, and oboe) to the concluding procession to Samarkand, which alternates between a bleak section that repeats a musical cell (and looking ahead to Sibelius’s late, terse tone poems) and one with sensual, lustrous strings (recalling the resignation and resolve of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in its closing moments). Along the way, the chamber-scale forces of the Britten Sinfonia not only realised idiomatically the tender, intimate passages with strings and harp which evoked the dreamy, sultry world of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, but also those more densely scored numbers which could have come directly from the pages of the The Walk to the Paradise Garden or On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, which themselves evince more Wagnerian drama. The treading two-note figure which depicts the procession to Rafi and Pervaneh’s execution is also reminiscent of the sinister, harmonically contorted version of the ‘Rheingold’ motif in the form it has reached by Götterdämmerung. The Britten Sinfonia Voices added a charismatic vocal dimension, whether in numbers that particularly sounded like partsongs or madrigals of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras – or indeed like Delius’s own To be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water – or the highly atmospheric first choral number (with the singers off-stage) emerging more like distant, howling wind than clear musical harmony. Delius fans will surely await with eager anticipation the recording of the work on Chandos from the performance on the following night at Saffron Hall.

Despite Delius’s extensive instrumentation for Hassan, the real sounds of the Middle East came in the first half, with three pieces by Tawadros for the oud – and one might mention fez too, as he wore one for his performances. He warmed up with Constellations (2018) a solo piece which grew, like an improvisation, unhurriedly from the twangs of the strings and taps of the instrument’s rotund body.

The Britten Sinfonia came on for the world premiere of Three Stages of Hindsight (2023) orchestrated by Alex Palmer. Although the music is continuous, its three clear sections (fast, slow, fast) correspond to the three movements of the traditional Classical, Western concerto, with solos cadenzas even for the oud in the first and last, played by Tawadros with fleet, frenetic virtuosity. The first (‘Retrospect’) opened with a lengthy exposition of yearning, modal themes, winsomely played by the woodwind, and unexpectedly like Vaughan Williams’s English folksong-inspired pastoralism. But when the oud came in, it was not to repeat those melodies, but to energise the music with the more distinctive modes of Arabic music (the programme notes refer to the mode of Athar Kord on the tonic of A). That whipped up the music to a notable degree of linear, forward energy, rather than the developmental logic or structural rigour of Western sonata form as such, as Tawadros drew out a flurry of notes and resonating sonorities, often creating a haze of sounds with tones smaller than Western semitones, rather than a defined sequence of precisely delineated notes or chords as usually obtains in Western music, even on a lute or guitar. (The oud’s richer timbre compares more closely with the latter instrument than the former.)

Phillips maintained a compellingly dynamic pace with the ensemble in accompaniment, broadening out for the sustained melancholic passages of ‘Regret’ over which Tawadros spun a more melodic lament on the oud, before launching into excited action again for the final ‘Reality’, couched as a seemingly ironic blend of European waltz meter with Arabic harmonic and tonal scoring leading to a state of euphoria, Tawadros still in effortless control of the volley of notes. The coda returned to the opening of the whole Concerto, ending with an enigmatic fading out of the oud’s notes by themselves.

He and the Britten Sinfonia ended with Constantinople (2015) which the composer describes as his attempt to write a heavy-metal tune for the oud. The mood of its hectic ostinato surely recalls the Turkish capital in happier times (and of course once the focus of the entire Arab world in the time of the Ottoman Empire) – although not mentioned, performers and audience will surely have held in mind the recent, tragic earthquake in the south-east corner of the country. The ostinato (featuring part of a scale in Hijaz Kar mode) was repeated remorselessly and thrillingly, and but for its characteristic augmented second among its intervals, rather evoked for this listener, at least, the tempestuous prelude to Wagner’s Die Walküre which depicts a storm with a similar motif. Command of this frenzied material by soloist and orchestra was exemplary, rounding off a fascinating sequence which enabled the audience to engage fruitfully with Arab music-making in a more familiar Western context.

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