Graham Strahle
| July 30, 2014

Nigel Westlake and Lior with Sydney Symphony Orchestra
ABC Classics

Many seem to have been taken by surprise by the beauty and force of what Westlake has accomplished in Compassion with singer-songwriter Lior. Their orchestral song cycle, set to Hebrew and Arabic texts, was premiered in September last year with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and since then it has been performed with the QSO, WASO, ASO and MSO – each time with the composer conducting.

Its circumstances will be familiar. Westlake composed Compassion following the death of his son Eli in a shocking road rage incident in 2008, which temporarily halted his work as a composer. It, along with Missa Solis, Requiem for Eli of 2010, in a very real sense represents his resurfacing as a composer in the wake of this terrible experience.

Having earlier reviewed Compassion in The Australian and witnessing it live in Adelaide, I admit to having come to really like this work, and feel sufficiently urged to reflect on how and why it gains its stature. First, foremost there’s great beauty in its seven movements, from the slow awakening of ‘Sim Shalom’ (Grant Peace) to the richly colourised prayerful warmth of ‘Avinu Maleinu’ (Hymn of Compassion) at the end. Westlake is, apart from anything else, amongst the finest of orchestrators: he really understands and knows how to optimally work with the ‘native’ voices of an orchestra’s string, wood, brass and percussion sections.

But as to its meaning, a central question lingers in my mind, about how ‘compassion’ seems to barely describe this music. Parts are electrifyingly exciting, like the second song, ‘Eize Hu Chacham?’ (Who is Wise?), whose wicked rhythmic syncopations suggest a Bernstein influence. Then there’s ‘Al Takshu L’vavchem’ (Don’t Harden Your Hearts), whose tongue-twister lyrics and volcanic crescendos gather a pounding, cathartic energy – almost like Stravinsky meets Hans Zimmer.

‘Ma Wadani Ahadun’ (Until the End of Time) scales even greater heights, climbing from the dreamy musing of Lior’s wordless singing at the beginning to an ecstatic climax of phenomenal power – he imparts a visceral sting on its words espousing wisdom and compassion in the face of some people’s harshness. Perhaps that is what Compassion is all about.

Most Middle Eastern in flavour is ‘Inna Rifqa’ (The Beauty Within), whose vocal line rises up above delicate traceries of strings and tuned percussion like an Adhan call to prayer. Its words, from an Islamic hadith about how beauty is to be found in compassion, seem to come to the heart of the matter.

Hebrew psalms elsewhere and even quotes by the Dalai Lama and Shirley MacLaine (‘Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends’) all combine towards what appears to be another, underlying, reconciliatory message in this work about today’s deeply divided world. There is plenty to admire about Compassion’s honesty and vision, in addition to its extraordinary beauty. This live concert recording with the Sydney Symphony, made last September, is precise and blemish-free.

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