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CD Review

Lili Boulanger

Carus 83.489

Hymne au Soleil

  • Prelude in B Major 1
  • Prelude in D Flat Major 1
  • Soir sur la plaine for Soprano, Tenor, Mixed Choir & Piano 1-5
  • La source 1,5
  • La tempête 1,5
  • Les sirenes 5-7
  • Renouveau (version for Mixed Choir & Piano 1,8-10
  • Sous bois (version for Mixed Choir & Piano 1,5
  • D'un vieux jardin 1
  • D'un jardin clair 1
  • Cortege for piano 1
  • Soleils de Septembre 1,5,10
  • Pour les funérailles d'un soldat for Baritone, Mixed Choir & Piano 1,5,11
  • Psalm 24 "La terre appartient à l'Eternel" for Tenor, Mixed Choir & Piano 1,5,12
  • Vieille prière bouddhique for Tenor, Mixed Choir & Piano 1,5,13
  • Hymne au soleil for Alto, Mixed Choir & Piano 1,5,14
1 Antonii Baryshevskyi, piano
2 Sonja Bühler, soprano
3 Joachim Streckfuß, tenor
4 Christos Pelekanos, baritone
5 Orpheus Vokalensemble/Michael Alber
7 Catherina Witting, soprano
8 Clémence Boullu, soprano
9 Bernadette Beckermann, alto
10 Friederike Schorling, alto
11 Christos Pelekanos, baritone
12 Davide Fior, tenor
13 Jo Holzwarth, tenor
14 Anne Bierwirth, alto
Carus 83.489
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Sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), of course, have an immensely important position in the musicology of the twentieth century. Nadia is best known as teacher of many significant composers… well over 200 in all. But both Lili and Nadia were also accomplished composers (Lili was the first female winner of the Prix de Rome prize for composition, in 1913),. And performers of prodigy (it was Fauré – a friend of the family and one of Lili's teachers – who discovered when she was an infant that she had perfect pitch). They were (and are) both figures of great respect in Europe and North America. Lili's early death at the age of 24 was caused by "intestinal tuberculosis", the result of childhood bronchial pneumonia, which led to a compromised immune system.

The works of neither sister have really entered the repertoire to be played regularly. As with most "icons" of both performance and music theory, their works must legitimately arouse curiosity. Here is a CD of a generous hour and twenty minutes of Lili's choral works performed sympathetically yet without pulling any punches by (members of) the Orpheus Vokalensemble and soloists under Michael Alber with Antonii Baryshevskyi, piano. The recording of Soleils de Septembre is a world première; and only half a dozen or so of the works here already appear on CDs in the current catalog.

Lili Boulanger loved the voice. One gets the impression that she was a very warm and "human" person – especially when remembering Nadia's reputation as a stickler and very demanding perfectionist. So Lili prized vocal and choral works above all others. Here is a collection of 15 (apparently otherwise ungrouped) works lasting from under two to over nine minutes, all composed between 1911 and 1917, to which the producers of the CD have given the title of the last work, Hymne au soleil.

In keeping with the overall attitude and values which are obviously at work to inform both the flavor and the substance of the CD, there is nothing pretentious here. Boulanger's work – like her life – speaks for itself. There are no notes whatsoever of either ponderousness or jollity. Mere "effect" is entirely absent. One can imagine Lili's staunchest supporter, her sister, in control. Alber, too, fashions something memorable as much by its simple impact as by any reference to the historical context in which it was written… that of the devastation and destruction engulfing Paris (and Northern France) at the time when Lili was composing these memorable works. It was also at that time that Nadia had to suspend her own activities and support her sister. Yet this wonderful music stands on its own in every way – and is exquisitely served by Alber and his forces on Carus.

Lili Boulanger's work here does not immediately strike the listener as avant garde or "pioneering". Yet it does share with Debussy and to a lesser extent Ravel a certain delight in impressionistic "exploration". The music stops short of being "ethereal" or overtly redolent of dreams. But works like D'un vieux jardin [tr.8] would not be out of place in Debussy's Préludes. Similarly, Soleils de Septembre [tr.11] offers harmonies and tonal centers that seem to float and refuse definition.

At the same time, Boulanger makes a virtue of appearing to prize rigor and definition over mood and color for color's sake. There are allusions, to be sure – to nature, to our frailty, to loss, memory, frustration and so on. But Boulanger brings to life on its own strengths anything which may have had overtly symbolic origins; not by relying on an image, event. Even though Pour les funérailles d'un soldat [tr.12] has a narrative component, it impresses more by archetypes than description, à la Stravinsky). What's more, Boulanger does not fall back on any (need for) translation of the external to the composer's response for its success.

Rather, one is left marveling at Boulanger's skill in pursuing a musical idea, great and simple, such that it is emblazoned on our aural memory as both inevitable and beautiful. As, indeed, happens with Debussy. At the same time, the virtues of abstract music are not hammered into us rhetorically. So nuance, restraint and subtlety in performance are all needed. And these qualities (and more – such as good grasp of dynamics, the need to respect the architecture and progression of the musical phrasing) are exactly what these performers bring to this recording.

They are obviously sufficiently committed to Boulanger's idiom and purposes not to feel the need to "plough" through the works as cute miniatures which they think they ought (merely) to inflate. For none of these pieces is a miniature! No, they bring instead a quiet but unmistakable respect and a due honor to this substantial and intensely thoughtful music. For them it is music written by someone who had no doubt about their profundity and potential place in the repertoire.

Although this collection seems to grow more somber as it progresses (the beautiful Pour les funérailles d'un soldat is lugubrious to a fault), variety is provided by differing forces: choir, soloists, piano alone, and rainbow combinations thereof. At the same time, such is the devotion of these players that textures often combine to suggest a greater richness (never anything cloying) than can possibly be present.

The acoustic of these recordings (that of the Landesakademie Bibliothekssaal in Ochsenhausen near Stuttgart) is full and resonant. It suits the singers marginally better than it does the piano, perhaps, because the latter tends not to benefit from such an extended sense of space. Nothing is lost, though; the music remains in the forefront of our minds when listening to the CD. The booklet in English, French and German has a short exposition of Lili Boulanger's life, music and achievements; portraits of the Choir and soloists; and the texts of most of the works (the Vieille prière bouddhique could not be reproduced for copyright reasons) in all three languages. This accomplished recording of Boulanger's music ought to do more than satisfy your curiosity about a musical legend. It ought to make you think. Stop, pause and admire how Boulanger met the challenges she set herself. You can here appreciate her achievement in no small part because of the stylish and sensitive technique of the performers. Regrettably, too, it ought to tantalize as you speculate at where she might have taken her inspiration had she lived longer.

Copyright © 2018, Mark Sealey