Grace and light

The first solo album of Egyptian soprano Fatma Said is a precious record in a rather agonizing period where we all feel a great need for tenderness, light and grace. In these times of health and political crisis, Said’s album is like a comforting and soothing balm, reminding us that the East and the West are not enemies, but that there is a common political and cultural history between civilisations, as the soprano explained to a French news outlet :

« I tried to understand why I felt a very close relationship with these countries, France and Spain, when I have no relationship with them. I think it has something to do with history. At the end of the 19th century, many French artists, poets and composers portrayed the East, within the Orientalist movement. Bizet, Ravel, Hugo… For the Spanish part, there is a very strong link, in the music rather than in the lyrics, between Egypt and Andalusia. The Arabic way of singing and writing music is very close to what I have heard in Spanish music. I’m very comfortable singing Andalusian music ». (Fatma Said’s interview with the French newspaper 20 minutes, 15 October 2020)

The album opens with Ravel’s Shéhérazade, a cycle of three melodies based on poems by Tristan Klingsor, which was composed in versions for orchestra or piano. Originally, Maurice Ravel had a project for an opera on the theme of the Thousand and One Nights, which did not succeed, and of which only one overture remains, created in 1899. Then in 1903 Ravel reused this overture very partially to compose a cycle of melodies for voice and orchestra, so strong was his attraction for the Orient. The Egyptian soprano is accompanied here by Malcolm Martineau at the piano, and for the second melody of this cycle by a Middle Eastern flute, an atypical choice which she explains at length in the libretto of the album:

« For the cycle’s second song, “La Flûte enchantée”, I felt the ney would be highly appropriate for the colour and character Ravel was imagining. The ney is a Middle Eastern flute, and Ravel so evocatively uses Eastern and Arabic scales in this song. Here the flute is really another person: the voice of the woman’s secret lover speaking to her in an undertone from outside her master’s apartment while he sleeps. The ney’s timbre and minute expressive nuances are so similar to those of the human voice that the combination of flute and singer really does sound like an intimate conversation between two people in private. Burcu Karadağ’s playing helped evoke the exact colour I had imagined, in fact even more atmospherically than I’d dreamed of. » (Album’s booklet)

Long before Ravel, nineteenth-century composers such as Hector Berlioz and George Bizet translated their attraction to the Orient into music, in the context of the French colonial empire in North Africa. As Sabine Teulon Lardic reminds us in her review of the album on the website of Première Loge, « from the 19th century onwards, Europe’s fascination with a fantasised Orient (from V. Hugo to Flaubert) was based on colonial expansion, which was very tangible. And the Palestinian aesthetician Edvard W. Saïd demonstrated how Orientalism is a construction wielded by the settlers to materialise both their superiority and their fear of the Other ».

Representative of this fantasised vision of the Orient, « Zaïde » (1845), a melody composed by Hector Berlioz to a text by Roger de Beauvoir, is, according to Fatma Said, the heart of the album. It is a bolero for voice, castagnette and piano or orchestra, a spirited but also nostalgic Spanish-style piece. As for the melody « Les Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe » (1866), composed by George Bizet on a poem by Victor Hugo, Said explained that although it « speaks about this in a context different from my own experience, the song is full of longing and for me it conjures up memories of those German teachers at our school who found it so painful to leave. In Egypt we take pride in making people feel comfortable and a part of us, and I can feel and hear this in the words and music of the hostess in this song: what she would have done to make this man she has loved stay – at the start of the song even trying to contain her emotions over losing him. »

A contemporary of Ravel, the French flutist, conductor and composer Philippe Gaubert, who was the music director of the Opera de Paris in the late 1930s, had great knowledge of the human voice, and composed several operas and 90 melodies, including « Le Repos en Egypte » (1910), which is featured on this album. Much influenced by Gabriel Fauré, Gaubert’s work is refined and characteristic of French melody of the first half of the 20th century. A virtuoso composer, though academic, Gaubert made music history above all with his exceptional talent as an instrumentalist and conductor, ensuring the Parisian creations of Daphnis and Chloé by Ravel, Elektra and Richard Strauss’ Chevalier à la Rose and Turandot by Giacomo Puccini.

Between East and West, Spain has a special place in the history of relations between the West and the Middle East, since between 711 and 1492 Islam and Arab-Muslim cultures dominated a greater or lesser part of the Iberian Peninsula, known as El Andalus, which is not limited to the territory of present-day Andalusia. Fatma Said has chosen for 6 Iberian canciones, popular melodies by Manuel de Falla, Frederico Garcia Lorca, and Fernando Obradors, and is accompanied by the guitarist Rafael Aguirre.

« There is a common popular origin to the melodies composed by Manuel de Falla – Tuosojillos negros (Your Little Black Eyes, 1902), by J. Serrano – La Cancion del ovido (The Goose Inn Song) from the eponymous zarzuela (1916) – and by Obradors (Cantares populares). Within this mosaic, it is undoubtedly the very simple lullaby by Federico Garcia Lorca (poet, musician and folklorist), Nana de Sevilla, that is most moving. Its melancholy spreads with modesty over the heady line of the Andalusian cadenza (four joint notes descending). We appreciate the vocal flexibility of the ornaments in this Hispanic collection. Let’s not forget that they draw on the Andalusian tradition of the cante jondo, itself impacted by oriental vocality … when Spain was at the crossroads of Mediterranean cultures. Interculturality is therefore an integral part of the programme at all levels ». (Sabine Teulon Lardic, Première Loge)

Another beautiful idea of Fatma Said is to record Arabic songs, very famous in the Middle East but little known in the West, and here performed « with a really unusual combo: Tamer Pınarbaşı on kanun, Burcu Karadağ on ney and Itamar Doari on percussion (riq, darbuka, etc.) with jazz pianist Tim Allhoff and jazz bassist Henning Sieverts – one of the pieces even uses a string quartet (the vision string quartet). And the ensemble playing features a lot of improvisation – so it’s more like a unique jazz group that combines my classical voice with jazz musicians in Arabic repertoire. These songs – each of them completely different – are quite famous in the Arab world, but we’re presenting them in a new light. » As Katherine Cooper explains in the introduction to her interview with Said, « the Egyptian soprano Fatma Said has been heavily involved in an Oxford University research-project on music from her home country for several years, and she’s brought the fruits of that work to bear on her debut recording El Nour ». The album features melodies by Lebanese and Egyptian composers such as Gamal Abdel-Rahim (1924-1988), Najib Hankash (who died in 1977) and Sayed Darwish (1892-1923), a selection of melodies that also pays tribute to the Lebanese legend of Arabic song, Fairuz.

This album is a real treat, thanks to a very intelligent and coherent choice of French, Spanish and Arabic melodies, including both well-known tunes and rarities to be discovered. The success of this album is also due to the quality of the performers, first and foremost the soprano Fatma Said, whose crystalline, supple and luminous voice, storytelling skills and musical intelligence are a delight. This first album is a good omen for the future of this young singer, who, far from answering the sirens of media coverage, has taken the time to build this superb album with patience and reflection.

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