L. BOULANGER: Psalm 130, “Du fond de l’abîme”. Psalm 24. Psalm 129. Pour les Funérailles d’un Soldat. Vieille Prière Bouddhique. D’Un Soir Triste. D’Un Matin de Printemps

L. BOULANGER Psalm 130, “Du fond de l’abîme”. Psalm 24. Psalm 129. Pour les Funérailles d’un Soldat. Vieille Prière Bouddhique. D’Un Soir Triste. D’Un Matin de Printemps – Mark Stringer, cond; Luxembourg PO; Namur Sym Ch; Sonia de Beaufort (mez); Martial Defontaine (ten); Vincent Le Texier (bar) – Timpani 1C1046 (67:22 &)

I knew it was only a matter of time — that sooner or later we would have a new, improved recording of Lili Boulanger’s great choral works. Here it is, making it the one Boulanger disc to have if you want only one; the one to have if you want to discover for yourself whether she was really as great a composer as her many partisans believe; the one to have if you already have the Everest reissue (see Fanfare20:3), love the music, but wish the performances and recordings were better. Just to pull it together for you: This disc contains everything from the Everest disc except forPie Jesu (her final work, dictated from her death-bed); in addition, it offers the two late symphonic poems (D’Un Soir Triste and D’Un Matin de Printemps) and the slightly earlier choral work, Pour les Funérailles d’un Soldat. All but this latter work were composed during the last four years of her short life.

A further bonus is a fine essay by the erudite connoisseur and commentator Harry Halbreich. When discussing Boulanger (and other favorite composers about whom little has been written), I have at times feared that my praise has been too extravagant, perhaps as unconscious overcompensation for their neglect. It is therefore somewhat reassuring to see Halbreich describe the works on this disc as “amongst the most powerful and grandiose ever fixed on staves.” Similarly, he concurs with my identification of Lili Boulanger’s musical language and style near the juncture of Florent Schmitt and Arthur Honegger, while pointing to “astonishing congruencies with … a great composer [she] could not have known: Ernest Bloch.”

In the review cited earlier I discussed four of the choral works individually and at some length. Since it is only two years since that review appeared, I will abbreviate my comments here, while inviting the interested reader to consult that issue for further details. The disc begins with Boulanger’s stirring, martial setting of Psalm 24. However, the major offering is her 25-minute setting of the Psalm 130, the work generally regarded as her masterpiece, and on this I join the consensus. 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.” Of comparable stature, if shorter in duration, is the setting of Psalm 129. In a mere seven minutes this work conveys both the grandeur of Boulanger’s voice and the intensity of her vision. Vieille Prière Bouddhique is a somber setting of a well-known Buddhist prayer, highlighting the whole-tone implications of the Phrygian mode.

Composed in 1912-13, Pour les Funérailles d’un Soldat is a little earlier than the other selections offered here. Based on a poem by Alfred de Musset, the work is eloquent in its mournful magnificence. Only a few moments that verge on the conventional betray its slightly earlier date of composition.

The two symphonic poems, D’Un Soir Triste and D’Un Matin de Printemps are Lili Boulanger’s penultimate works, begun in 1917, and completed early in 1918. Shared thematic material suggests their pairing as a 15-minute diptych, and that seems to be the way they are usually performed. Matin was actually composed first — opposite from the way they are programmed here and elsewhere — and is barely half the duration of Soir. Despite the trite pleasantries suggested by its title, D’Un Matin de Printemps evokes a far more complex and profound psychological experience, while its companion work delves deeply into spiritual darkness. Both are extraordinarily mature and sophisticated post-Impressionist mood paintings. Here the similarities with such contemporaneous works as Bloch’s Three Jewish Poems (minus the Hebraicisms) and Schmitt’s Anthony and Cleopatra are quite vividly apparent. However, without recourse to a poetic or verbal anchor, one becomes aware of one element lacking from these pieces, and that is a strongly characterized melodic profile to provide focus and direction. An excellent example for comparison would be Bloch’s later (1937) triptych of mood-paintings, Evocations (rather than the Jewish Poems, which have their own structural weaknesses). The first, “Contemplation,” and the third, “Renouveau,” of the Evocations evoke moods remarkably similar to those charted by Boulanger, but their stronger melodic focus enables them to make a slightly stronger impact.

Unfortunately, I must complicate this otherwise rave review by observing that although these recorded performances represent a vast improvement over what has previously been available, they still leave considerable room for improvement. The recording ambiance is rather murky, somewhat obscuring harmonic details within thick choral textures. American conductor Mark Stringer (whose English-language bio contains some really idiotic statements — “ . . . distinguishes himself on the rostrum with quite a rare tone, . . . and the faculty to subjugate his musicians . . . unlike [other conductors] whose first interest is the preliminary ‘setting-up’ towards a musical vision . . .”) leads expressive and sympathetic performances, but the orchestra and chorus offer less than optimal precision and clarity. I mention this not to discourage prospective purchasers, but simply in the interests of full, honest disclosure, and to encourage further efforts. Rest assured–this disc is definitely Want List-worthy. And furthermore, the program booklet contains two lovely and beautifully reproduced photos of the composer.