Rahbari Celebrates “My Mother Persia”

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RAHBARI: My Mother Persia: Symphonic Poems Nos. 4-8 / Mohammed Mohatmedi, ten; Antalya State Symphony Orch.; Alexander Rahbari, cond . Naxos 8.574065

As an American, it’s a bit hard for me to “celebrate” Persia which is now Iran, the largest center of state-sponsored terrorism in the world, the country that has publicly announced that it will attempt to take out both the United States of America and Israel, plus (I am sure) whatever ancient enemies are within its scope such as Iraq. On the other hand, I know that the Iranian, or Persian, populace as a whole does not support its terrorist government. That was shown by the massive demonstrations in that country about a year ago, which were systematically squelched by the Jihadist thugs in charge, so we have to take Alexander Rahbari’s sentiments at face value.

The symphonic or orchestral tone poems contained within comprise Part 2 of his series of eight. Vol. 1 came out previously, but I was not at that time persuaded to review it. After listening to some of the music here, however, I decided to take the plunge.

In his description for Symphonic Poem No. 4, “The World Without Wars,” the annotator Barbad Bayat states that “All the elements of Iranian music have been used in this movement, such as different scales and modes used in traditional Iranian music as well as rhythms and authentic singing. The piece is based on a magnificent poem by Mohamad Farid Nasseri (b. 1982), and demonstrates how a simple popular rhythm can turn into a rhythm of war and hatred. The hymn of Ey Iran is used as motifs within the entire piece.” The music begins with an abrupt six-note brass motif, following which repeated rhythms played by a solo trumpet intertwine with some very complex writing for the lower strings and winds, eventually joined by rumbling tympani. The fast, pounding rhythm then lightens up and becomes slower as another repeated rhythmic motif enters the picture, now featuring smeared trombone figures. This is followed by a surprisingly lyrical oboe solo with slightly ominous trombone punctuations, then a French horn fanfare leads us into an entirely different section, now with the shrill, whining voice of tenor Mohammed Mohatmedi squalling out a text set to Masseri’s poem. This, I could have lived without, but fortunately it doesn’t last too long. Indeed, one of the things I found most interesting in Rahbari’s writing was its constantly shifting sounds, themes and rhythms; nothing gets bogged down because it keeps on moving and morphing. Of the five symphonic poems on this CD, this is clearly the longest at 27:14 (the others are 10 minutes long or less) and, as a result, the most complex. Indeed, the music continues to grow as Rahbari adds more thematic development to his web of sound, along the way shifting rhythms while still maintaining a lively discourse. The only problem was that, by the time I reached the 15:30 mark, I felt that he had played this string out. Our nasal tenor returns around the 16-minute mark to regale us with more “sung” poetry, set to a short repeated melody that isn’t developed. Eventually, however, things change once again as our tenor returns, now mercifully singing much softer.

Symphonic Poem No. 5, “In Love With the World,” is a relatively jolly piece “based on a poem by the famous poet Sa’adi Shirazi from the 13th century. It is the first time that the unusual time signature of 13/8 has been written in an Iranian piece of music. At the beginning you can hear a common Iranian santoor sound which can be heard throughout as a counterpoint influenced by the hymn, Ey Iran.” Unfortunately, our Arabian tenor returns. Yes, I know that different cultures have different concepts of beauty, but to my very Western ears this kind of singing, like that of Chinese singers, has a very limited appeal. The music is fascinating in and of itself, but the vocalization simply doesn’t appeal to me. Sorry about that. Eventually the music evolves into a sort of call-and-response between the tenor and one of the winds (either oboe or English horn; it’s rather recessed in the sound and difficult to hear).

The sixth poem, “The Hymn of My Mother Persia,” is the briefest of them at 5:18 and uses a rhythmic feel similar to that of Orff’s Carmina Burana, except that the meter continually shifts. Bright, Orff-like figures played by the glockenspiel and flute are heard against bass rumblings, all of which backs up our nasal tenor. In the seventh, Rahbari retreats from the sound barrier to produce a relatively quiet but still rhythmically lively piece that celebrates the “street music” of Iran, set in 7/8 time.

The last Symphonic poem, titled “Arabization,” features “brass instruments playing a fast rhythm evoking Arab folk dances. The interesting fact is that every time an addition is made to the number of brass instruments, increasing their power, the effect of Arabic rhythms and melodies gradually increase as well, until it reaches a fanfare battle climax.” For music that purportedly promotes peace and love, this is pretty aggressive, militaristic music to my ears, but I admit that it is fascinating to hear at least once. Rahbari is clearly a good composer who works in a very different aesthetic from that of most Western composers, and he clearly has a fine ear for development as well as rhythm and orchestral detail.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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