Music inspired by or protesting appalling wartime events is nothing unusual, for example, Martinů’s Memorial to Lidice, Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima or even Alfred Janson’s A Baghdad Blues (Not for Blair, Not for Bush). Cecilia McDowall’s cantata The Girl from Aleppo (2019), to a fine libretto by the distinguished author Kevin Crossley-Holland, joins a fine tradition, therefore. McDowall’s inspiration is not like the impressive forebears listed above, but a very personal one, centred on the extraordinary story of the Kurdish refugee, Nujeen Mustafa, a onetime resident of Aleppo in Syria. (The work therefore has a connection to John Pickard’s remarkable trio for flute, viola and harp The Gardener of Aleppo, recently released on BIS, CD2461). Driven from her home by the devastating civil war, Nujeen—despite suffering from cerebral palsy—trekked over 3,500 miles to find refuge and a new life in Germany.
The cantata is structured as a suite in five movements, which traverse the emotional journey of Nujeen as a Kurd and disabled teenager (Orphans of the World), through the terrors and events of her escape from the civil war (Thousands milling at the border; I’d never seen the sea before and A lost tribe pushed from border to border) to sanctuary in a new country (Everyday Wonders). It was written, very appropriately, for the National Children’s Choir of Great Britain who sing with real fervour and wonderful ensemble throughout. The accompaniment is provided by violinist Harriet Mackenzie and pianist Claire Dunham. Mackenzie’s playing is thrilling throughout, her experience playing in the crossover Kosmos Ensemble (try their marvellous CD ‘Pomegranate’ on the Nimbus label, NI6378) put to excellent expressive use here. At only 19 minutes long, this CD single is well worth a listen.