L. BOULANGER Psalm 130, “Du fond de l’abîme”. Faust et Hélène. D’Un Soir Triste. D’Un Soir de Printemps. Psalm 24 – Yan Pascal Tortelier, cond; City of Birmingham Sym Ch, BBC Phil O; Lynne Dawson (sop); Ann Murray (mez); Neil MacKenzie, Bonaventura Bottone (ten); Jason Howard (bs) – CHANDOS CHAN-9745 (73:24 &)
L. BOULANGER Psalm 130, “Du fond de l’abîme”. Psalm 24. Pie Jesu. FAURÉ Requiem – Nadia Boulanger, cond; BBC Ch, SO; Janet Price (sop); Bernadette Greevy (mez); Ian Partridge (ten); John Carol Case (bar) – BBC MUSIC BBCL-4026-2, mono/analog (74:45). Live: Croydon, England, 10/30/68
Yes, it’s happened once again: Just a few months ago Timpani released the first new recording in many years of Lili Boulanger’s major choral works, in fine performances by the Namur Symphonic Choir and the Luxembourg Philharmonic, conducted by Mark Stringer (see Fanfare 23:1). Now, hard on the heels of that release — heralded in the 1999 Want List — comes another new recording, its contents largely overlapping those of its predecessor. And, unfortunately for the frugal Boulanger enthusiast, this new Chandos disc boasts advantages that make it indispensable, even for those who have already acquired the Timpani.
The most exciting feature of the Chandos disc is that alongside a magnificent performance of the Psalm 130 one finds the first modern recording of Faust et Hélène, a quasi-operatic adaptation of Eugène Adénis’s “lyric episode” (supposedly based on Part II of Goethe’s Faust) that earned young Boulanger the 1913 Prix de Rome. As the contest stipulated, she composed the work in complete isolation over the course of a four-week period. The result, which contains some pretty steamy, high-hormone music for a frail 20-year-old girl, is a 30-minute work of considerable lyrical and dramatic power in the Franco-Wagnerian operatic vein. (In a 1921 article on Lili Boulanger in La Revue Musicale, Camille Mauclair observed, “Her individual miracle is to have known life, without having learned, observed, or lived it.”) While a 1977 recording of Faust et Hélène conducted by Igor Markevitch has circulated for a number of years in various international guises, this new reading makes clear both the inadequacy of that recorded performance and the extraordinary brilliance of the work itself. In other words, the Markevitch performance made the work sound “impressive, considering . . .” while the new Tortelier reading provides a sense of overall cohesiveness that causes one to search one’s memory in vain for a comparable work of such power. (Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, perhaps, or Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleu?) Conductor Walter Damrosch called it, “one of the masterpieces of modern music.” With soprano Lynne Dawson and tenor Bonaventura Bottone providing a remarkably apt limpid intensity, this performance makes unequivocally clear that Faust et Hélène joins the 13-song cycle Clairières dans le ciel and the setting of Psalm 130 as the composer’s indisputable masterpieces. An impressively thorough motivic analysis provided by annotator Gerald Larner further illuminates the work’s rich texture of musical meaning. (In all fairness, I should add that although I have identified the earlier recording by its conductor, Igor Markevitch was a fine musician, and not likely to have been responsible for the shortcomings of that performance; mediocre orchestra and vocal soloists, insufficient rehearsal time, and compromises in the recording itself seem to have been the chief culprits.)
All the other works on the Chandos disc — the brief setting of Psalm 24, the monumental Psalm 130, and the two orchestral tone poems — appear on the recent Timpani release as well. In each case I would have to say that, relative to Stringer’s readings, Tortelier’s are articulated with more clarity, so that textures are more transparent and rhythmic contours are more saliently perceived. However, the consumer who opts for the Chandos disc alone will miss not only Pour les funérailles d’un soldat and the Vieille prière bouddhique — both worthy pieces — but also the setting of Psalm 129, an intensely powerful work that — in a mere seven minutes — provides a persuasive and uncompromising introduction to the emotional and spiritual world, as well as to the musical language, of Lili Boulanger.
Also released within the past few months is a new reissue of the concert given by the BBC Chorus and Orchestra on October 30, 1968, to commemorate the 50thanniversary of Lili Boulanger’s death. This concert, conducted by the composer’s older sister Nadia, has been available for several years on Intaglio INCD 703-1. But, newly remastered, this BBC Music reissue offers much cleaner, more transparent sound than the earlier release. The performances of the three Boulanger works reflect great sensitivity and insight, and are, of course, of singular documentary significance. And Fauré’s Requiem, a masterpiece of sublime spiritual tranquility, receives a loving, deeply felt interpretation. But, despite the superb remastering, unavoidable sonic deficiencies and various blemishes in the orchestral playing relegate these renditions to more specialized collections.
In summary, the general listener who has yet to venture into the music of Lili Boulanger and is, perhaps, skeptical of the claims made on its behalf, is well advised to begin with the Chandos disc, which can be recommended without qualification. Listeners ready to experience her remaining masterpiece, Clairières dans le ciel, are referred to Hyperion CDA66726 (see Fanfare 18:4). The Timpani disc can then be regarded as an optional supplement, while the Boulanger-conducted BBC disc is a valuable and rewarding document for the already convinced. The estimable, venerable, and once-indispensable Markevitch-conducted program of choral works on Everest can now be safely retired, the shabby playing of the Lamoureux Orchestra disqualifying it from comparison with these more recent efforts.