L. BOULANGER: Clairieres dans le Ciel. Les Sirenes. Renouveau. Hymne au Soleil. Pour les Funerailles d’un Soldat.. Soir sur la Plaine.

L. BOULANGER: Clairieres dans le Ciel. Les Sirenes. Renouveau. Hymne au Soleil. Pour les Funerailles d’un Soldat.. Soir sur la Plaine. Martyn Hill, tenor; Andrew Ball, piano; James Wood conducting the New London Chamber Choir; Amanda Pitt, soprano; Jeanette Ager, mezzo-soprano; Peter Johnson, baritone. HYPERION CDA66726 [DDD]; 67:10. Produced by Gary Cole.

For many years Lili Boulanger was represented on recording solely through an LP of religious choral works conducted by Igor Markevitch, produced under the supervision of sister Nadia, and released in this country in 1960 on the Everest label. Manyacquainted with that recording were stunned by the psychological maturity, depth of feeling, and technical sophistication of the music. In his program notes for this handsome new Hyperion release, the amazingly versatile, incredibly productive, and always knowledgeable and insightful Christopher Palmer describes his reaction to the Everest LP: “I was transported by what I heard… That music . . effectively changed my life… Nothing provides a rational explanation for how Lili, at the age of twenty-four, died the great composer which in my estimation she was. The entire Boulanger phenomenon, in fact, is unique in the history of music.”

While concurring wholeheartedly with Palmer’s sentiments, I must add that the music on that recording (which, unfortunately, I do not believe has been reissued on CD) is just about the best of Lili (I refer to her in this way not to be overly familiar or patronizing, simply for clarity and convenience). Only the ambitious 13-song cycle Clairieres dans le Ciel, featured on this Hyperion release in what seems to be its first complete appearance on CD, displays a comparable depth and individuality.

Actually, although Lili’s composing career was brief (1911-1918), it may be divided into two phases. The first culminates in 1914 with Clairieres, while the second comprises the final three years of her life. The works of the earlier period are impressive for their fluency and authenticity of feeling, but essentially reflect the subject matter and stylistic features current in French music at the time. This is true for much of Clairieres as well, except for the final song, which points to the direction taken in her later works. The five examples that appear on the Everest LP,  I might add, all derive from her final three years. The new Hyperion disc, on the other hand, concentrates on the earlier period.

For Clairieres dans le Ciel, Lili selected 13 of the 24 poems Francis Jammes entitled Tristesses. Together, they reflect stages of enchantment, passion, insecurity, hope, disappointment, and abandonment that form the timeless emotional progression of romantic yearning — an inexhaustible theme for artists. To what extent and in what way these emotions were experienced by the sheltered, chronically ailing 21-year-old, is a matter of speculation. But not only is there evidence that Lili identified herself with the number “13,” but also that she somehow related herself to the elusive — or perhaps doomed — nymph of the cycle, who disappears from the poet’s life for unknown reasons. Based on the harmonic language of Debussy, the music reflects the Symbolist poetry through an elaborately and
masterfully woven texture of voice and piano. Motifs are developed throughout the cycle, culminating in the final song, “Demain fera un an,” which occupies fully one fourth of the duration of the entire cycle and consolidates the sequence of emotions that have appeared thus far into a harrowing expression of emptiness and loss. This is truly one of the great French song cycles of the first quarter of this century.

Although seemingly sung more often by sopranos, Clairieres is intended for tenor, and the best previous recording of the cycle, released in 1968 to mark the 50th anniversary of Lili’s death, featured Eric Tappy, with Jean Francaix as pianist (EMI CVS-2077). Martyn Hill, who has distinguished himself impressively on previous Hyperion releases, does a comparably fine job here, with exquisitely sensitive and fluent accompaniment by Andrew Ball. The composer herself orchestrated a number of the songs from this cycle: I sure would love to hear how they sound!

Of the five remaining pieces, some are more interesting than others. Several appear on a Bayer CD (BR 100 041) reviewed by David Johnson in Fanfare 13:2 (p. 277). I never fail to admire Johnson’s erudition, but his taste-based judgments almost always differ diametrically from mine, and here is no exception (although he does agree with Christopher Palmer, me, and just about everyone else that Lili’s setting of the Psalm 130 — not adequately represented on recording at this time–is her towering masterpiece). Of these earlier pieces, Hymne au Soleil (1912) is a strong statement, both stark and ecstatic, somewhat archaic in flavor, pointing, with what Palmer describes as a “sturdy masculinity,” to the power of her later works. The dark majestyof Hymne au Soleil is expanded and deepened both musically emotionally in Pour les Funerailles d’un Soldat, composed at
about the same time and somewhat similar in style and tone. A rather mediocre performance of the orchestral version of this work, again conducted by Markevitch, was issued in France during the late 1970s and in this country a couple of years later. A new one would be most welcome. The version heard here is scored for baritone solo, chorus, and piano (played by three hands).

Les Sirenes, Renouveau (both 1911 — among her earliest completed works) and Soir sur la Plaine (1913) are notably less interesting — suffused with nature-images, presented with a gentle warmth, sweetness, and light far more conventional both in expressive content and in musical realization than we are accustomed to from Lili. Their presentation suffers further from the rather unfortunate vocal uncertainty of soprano Amanda Pitt.

As Lili Boulanger’s discography continues to grow, what is needed most urgently is a good modern recording of the Psalm 130 setting, Du Fond de l’Abime. A most novel and intriguing idea would be to group together three different adaptations of this psalm: Lili’s 1917 setting for soprano, chorus, organ, and orchestra, the Czech Vitezslav Novak’s orchestral tone poem (which also includes organ) from 1941, and the American Vittorio Giannini’s 1963 rhapsody for cello (or double-bass) and orchestra. Yes, each is dark and gloomy, but each also represents its respective composer at his/her best, and thestylistic affinities — clearly coincidental — and distinctions create a fascinating and rewarding program.