Review: Dhafer Youssef at the Barbican

Michael Tucker senses a certain incongruity if not superfluity in the conjunction of the symphonic and the Sufist in a concert given by Dhafer Youssef and the LSO at The Barbican

I hadn’t caught Tunisian vocalist and oud master Youssef live for nearly a decade, when he appeared with Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen in a superb concert at Southampton’s Turner Sims Hall. In the interim, my interest in this genre-crossing musician, long based in Europe and who has worked often with such further Norwegian nu-jazzers as Bugge Wesseltoft, Nils-Petter Molvaer and Eivind Aarset, had been deepened by a sequence of excellent, freshly conceived recordings: Divine Shadows of 2006 (where percussionist Marilyn Mazur joined another strong Norwegian contingent), Glow from 2007 (with Wolfgang Muthspiel), the Abu Nawa Rhapsody suite of 2010 and last year’s surpassing Birds Requiem. So I was very much looking forward to this special Barbican event with the London Symphony Orchestra, presented as part of the LSO’s 2014 season of Living Music.

Once you have coped with the brutalist architecture, diversely sloping floors and general sense of disorientation conjured by its asymmetrically disposed internal spaces – after 30 years of trying, I still find this a debilitating task – the Barbican actually offers one of the best concert spaces in London, with comfortable seats, good sight lines and, most importantly, a fine acoustic. The first half of the evening went well enough, with the LSO, conducted with no little passion by Kristan Järvi, playing two pieces by Arvo Pärt: the well-known Fratres of 1977, one of the key early works of his "tintinnabuli" style, and the much less well-known Symphony nr. 3. From 1971, this transitional work featured some powerful passages, at times as reminiscent of Mussorgsky as of Sibelius, but with – for me, at least – little overall sense of what one might traditionally think of as symphonic development within its diversely layered blocks of sound.

The programme notes told us that the second half of the concert went “from Eastern Orthodox traditions to North Africa’s Tunisia and the Islamic mysticism of Sufi” (I’m no expert, but think that should have been either "the Sufi" or "Sufism"). While the LSO’s managing director Kathryn McDowell suggested in her preface to these notes that Pärt’s music “intones a spirituality that links directly to the Sufi influences of Dhafer Youssef”, I found it hard, if not impossible, to sense much of any such trans-musical connection. Ennobling or uplifting as Pärt’s music may be, rhythmically enlivening it is not, certainly not in the sense that Youssef’s often dance-inducing lines are (and his part of the programme was subtitled “Dance of the Invisible Dervishes”). Any sense of connection between the two halves of the evening wasn’t helped by the unfortunate fact that the Barbican’s piano lift broke down in the interval, affording the audience both an extra 40 minutes of intermission and the performance-art-like, “hold-your-breath” spectacle of 10 or 12 trusty souls navigating a first-class grand piano up from the depths and onto the stage.

Youssef emerged, finally, with his group of Eivind Aarset (electric guitar), Kristjan Randalu (piano), Phil Donkin (bass) and – I think – Ferenc Nemeth (drums) somehow finding room enough to play on a stage filled with the massed ranks of the LSO. And things began wonderfully, with the orchestra silent, initially, on Blending Souls And Shades – one of the key numbers from the Birds Requiem suite – as Randalu conjured the most delicate of sparely rendered melodic figures to complement Youssef’s intimate vocal incantation, building with poetic logic from baritone to (digital-delay-enhanced) falsetto, and prefacing some of his typically clipped yet resonant oud lines. Arranged by the Norwegian Ketil Bjerkestrand (who was in the packed house and who was invited up to the stage by Youssef, at the end of the evening, to take due public credit for his work), this was one of several numbers taken from the Requiem, complemented by congruent pieces such as Odd Poetry and Miel et Cendres from Divine Shadows.

As the set developed, the LSO offered both restrained and sumptuous string playing, a range of brass and percussion interjections, and, it must be said, some sustained passages of really spirited ostinato rhythm, delivered from seemingly all sections of this superb orchestra. To my ears, however, a good deal of this excellent effort at times came uneasily close to being kitsch-like in effect, serving to detract from, rather than enhance, the original character, or poetic lucidity, of Youssef’s cleanly stepped music. His unfolding, folk-inflected, sometimes jazz-tinged, sometimes rock-driven modal melodies and propulsive rhythm surely intertwine best in sparely textured space. And if you have Eivind Aarset on hand, with all the special textures he can summon with the flick of a switch or the press of a foot pedal, do you really need a massive orchestra as well? Youssef himself clearly thought so, complimenting Järvi and the LSO at several points in the performance and expressing regret that Birds Requiem had not been recorded with the orchestra on hand.

Judging by the ecstatic applause that led to an encore, the majority of the audience were of Youssef’s persuasion here. For me, however, it was a distinct relief to see the LSO remain silent as Youssef and his cohorts relaxed into a final funky, offset groove, moving – with, once again, poetic logic – across a dynamic spectrum which ranged from the quietest of archetypal, folk-touched moments to passages of rock-driven exultation.

Photo by Laurent Edeline

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