L. BOULANGER Psalm 130, “Du fond de l’abîme”. Psalm 24. Psalm 129. Vieille Prière Bouddhique. STRAVINSKY Symphony of Psalms · John Eliot Gardiner, cond; Monteverdi Ch; London SO · DGG 289 463 789-2 (68:10 &)
It appears that the music of Lili Boulanger has finally been accepted into the mainstream—the mainstream of recordings at least. It was not long ago that the few major works of the frail, short-lived younger sister of the world-renowned pedagogue were accessible only through a poorly played and recorded Everest LP, later re-issued on compact disc. Those performances suggested to the receptive, sympathetic listener that amid the blurred choral textures and muddy orchestral sonorities was some of the most profound and powerful musical expression of the early 20th century. Now we have witnessed the fascinating process by which growing familiarity, permitting increasingly proficient and perspicuous interpretations, permits previously obscure works gradually to assume the stature of self-evident masterpieces of the repertoire. (Of course, the active recordedrepertoire is still light-years ahead of the live-performance repertoire.) While there is no doubt but that this relatively rapid ascent into the awareness of the broader public owes a good deal to feminist activism (not to mention a familiar surname and a heart-breaking biography), it is equally clear that the music of Lili Boulanger—unlike that of many other female composers who are brought to our attention—does not need and has never needed the special pleading of the cult of victimization.
This new release features four of Boulanger’s finest works. I will not discuss them here in great detail, as I have already written about them at some length in discussions of other recent Boulanger recordings. Her setting of the Psalm 130 is, by general consent, her masterpiece—a work of astonishing power. Harry Halbreich calls it “one of the summits of French music of the first half of the XXth century, … the accomplished summation of all her inspirational riches,” while Martin Anderson adds that it reveals an awareness that “the God of the Old Testament is not a benevolent figure.” Though only about eight minutes long, the Psalm 129offers a vision of comparable seriousness expressed with uncompromising candor. The brief setting of Psalm 24 is bold and forceful, highlighting the brass and organ in a neo-primitive evocation somewhat reminiscent of Florent Schmitt’s setting of the Psalm 47. Ancient Buddhist Prayer is a somber, haunting piece that focuses obsessively on the whole-tone implications of the Phrygian mode.
All four of these works—and several others—can be found in better-than-adequate performances from Luxembourg, conducted by Mark Stringer, on a Timpani disc (1C1046; see Fanfare 23:1, pp. 194-95). Two of them—along with several other equally important Boulanger works—can be found in superior British performances, conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier, on a Chandos release (CHAN-9745; see Fanfare 23:4, pp. 193-4, or my website, www.Walter-Simmons.com, for my comments; Martin Anderson’s views, not inconsistent with mine, appear in 23:3, pp. 213-14).
However, what the new DG release has to offer are somewhat finer vocal soloists, a more proficient chorus, more transparent sound quality, and more meticulous phrasing. The latter, however, is not an unmixed blessing: Sometimes it results in the revelation of textural details previously overlooked, or in the discerning of significance from details that others have casually passed over; at other times, such meticulousness seems fussy and wrong-headed. At some points climaxes seem fully consummated for the first time; at others the pacing seems unduly protracted, at still others, it seem hasty and rushed. Overall there is an especially effective balance between passages of ethereal mystery (that often seemed just a bit dull in previous renditions) and thrilling moments of titanic power and majesty. For these reasons, listeners who already know and love this music from previous recordings may find this new release worth having as well. However, Tortelier’s somewhat less meticulous—and somewhat less fussy—performances remain excellent representations; when the matter of program selection is brought to bear, his Chandos disc remains the best single introduction to Boulanger’s music.
The issue of program selection raises questions about the decision to devote time that could have been allotted to other Boulanger works to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms instead. Certainly a case can be made for the relevance of such a juxtaposition: yes, it makes for a whole program of Psalm settings, and a linkage (quite tenuous, in my opinion) can be asserted between the two composers via Stravinsky’s deep friendship with sister Nadia. And one must concede that Gardiner’s performance of the Stravinskyis extraordinary: Here is a work whose stature as a masterpiece is longstanding, and whose aesthetic import is understood sufficiently for an optimal interpretive approach to have been determined. There is no doubt but that this performance—lucid and dry, with lots of punch—is a brilliant realization of that approach. However, it must also be recognized that, Nadia’s pivotal relationship notwithstanding, the aesthetics of the two composers are diametrically opposed—Lili’s blistering intensity and emotional honesty vs. Igor’s cool, elusive detachment.
Before closing, a few comments about the program notes: Roger Nichols refers to Lili’s “maternal Russian blood,” as if that explains something, and indulges in trite musicological musings as to whether this composer might have heard music by that composer, as if resemblances among composers somehow need to be explained or—even more so—blamed on someone. And then, once again, there is essentially the same idiotic remark that I blasted just recently in an Ernest Bloch review, that the music “runs the risk of degenerating into ‘Hollywood epic’.” What is this supposed to mean? Is this guilt-by-prospective-association? I wish that someone would try to explain in objective terms just what “Hollywood epic” sounds like, and why it is so terrible, so that a composer had better avoid sounding like it, even if that composer wrote the music in question before there was such a thing as a “Hollywood epic.”