L. BOULANGER: Theme and Variations. Misc. songs, pieces for violin and piano. N. BOULANGER: Misc. pieces. NAOUMOFF: In Memoriam Lili Boulanger.

L. BOULANGER: Theme and Variations. D’un vieux jardin. D’un jardin clair. D’un matin de printemps.  Nocturne. Cortège. Clairières dans le ciel (excerpts).Dans l’immense tristesse. Le Retour. Pie Jesu. N. BOULANGER: Lux aeterna. Deux pieces for Cello and Piano. Le Couteau. Vers la vie nouvelle. NAOUMOFF:In Memoriam Lili BoulangerEmile Naoumoff, piano; Olivier Charlier, violin; Isabelle Sabrie, soprano; Doris Reinhardt, mezzo-soprano, Roland Pidoux, cello; Sylvie Robert, soprano; Catherine Marchese, bassoon. MARCO POLO 8.223636 [DDD]; 74:31. Produced by Emile Naoumoff.

“In Memoriam Lili Boulanger,” is the title of this CD, the brainchild of the young musician, Emile Naoumoff, who identified himself as Nadia Boulanger’s last pupil   This homage appears to be an effort to perpetuate his teacher’s legacy, of which one facet is a devotion to the music of her sister, Lili 1893-1918), and was recorded last year, in honor of her hundredth birthday. While being the chronically ill, short-lived sister of a more celebrated figure lends both pathos and interest to her reputation, it highlights her as a historical curiosity whose significance is more a matter of potentiality than of realization, drawing attention away from the content and quality of her actual achievement. Yet once one has been duly intrigued by the remarkable circumstances, there is some very compelling music to consider.

Within a compositional career of barely eight years, Lili Boulanger accomplished quite a bit, winning the Prix de Rome in 1913 and producing some 25 works. Familiar with about two-thirds of these, I can say that they impress me more deeply than music of any other woman composer with whom I am acquainted. To place her musical language for the listener unacquainted with her work, it derives from that gloomy, melancholy, highly perfumed world of late Chausson, into which are integrated the harmonic innovations of Debussy, with an inclination toward a grandeur whose austerity and serious attitude are perhaps closer to Arthur Honegger than to Florent Schmitt. Although most of her pieces are small in scale — songs, piano pieces, etc.– some are quite substantial. Indeed, the prize-winning cantata, Faust et Helene, the massive, profoundly moving choral-orchestral setting of the Psalm 130, “Du Fond de l’abime“, and the 13-song cycle Clairières dans le ciel, are major achievements of the highest quality, providing fully consummated artistic experiences. (Although all three of these works had been available on LP, only the psalm setting is currently available on CD: Intagio INCD 703-1, which also contains a setting of the Psalm 24, Pie Jésu, and the Fauré Requiem, taken from a live performance in England, conducted by Nadia. Although neither the sound quality nor the performances are terribly impressive, the disc is recommended as the best starting point from which to undertake an acquaintance with the music of Lili Boulanger.)

If consideration of Lili Boulanger’s music best begins with these three works, the disc under discussion here serves to elaborate and enrich one’s discovery. However, a discussion of this disc music begin with one question: Why are only four songs from Clairières included, and why is the fact that these excerpts not indicated anywhere on the package: Making this question all the more inevitable is the fact that the remaining nine songs from this wonderful cycle just about match in duration the notably undistinguished music by elder sister Nadia and by M. Naoumoff that happens to complete the disc. Including Clairieres dans le ciel in its entirety would have given this production a central focus and importance, while as it stands, it is rather a grab-bag with some unusual items that will fill out the collections of already-committed Lili devotees.

The three solo piano pieces — each dating from 1914 — are such items, and certainly deserve to be more widely known. The 11-minute Theme and Variations is based on a sort of sarabande whose lugubrious character pretty much dominates the entire work while the variations essentially address pattern and figuration. I found this piece to be especially reminiscent of Chausson, while the other two pieces lean more toward Debussy: D’un vieux jardin is exotic and mysterious, while D’un jardin clair is a little less interesting.

The three pieces for violin and piano span Lili’s entire composing career, dating from 1918, 1911, and 1914 respectively. These are heard rather frequently nowadays, D’un matin de printemps in a number of different arrangements (including full orchestra). They are very attractive pieces, in which harmonic practices derived from Debussy are amalgamated into a fluent palette. Despite the sunny image conveyed by its title,D’un matin de printemps has a dark, clangorous intensity almost suggesting Ernest Bloch (whose Viola Suite was composed the following year), while Cortège is fresh and exuberant, with some uncharacteristically cloying touches suggestive of the salon. 

Among the other vocal examples, Dans l’immense tristesse is especially gloomy, while Le retour is relatively conventional.  Pie Jésu is Lili’s last work, dictated to her sister while on her deathbed. Scored for soprano, harp, organ, and string quartet, it displays a haunting austerity, peaceful and ethereal. 

The pieces by Nadia were composed between 1910 and 1922 and are notably less interesting and more conventional than the works of her sister, generally inhabiting an impressionistically-flavored salon vein. Most impressive is the piano solo Vers  la vie nouvelle.

Emile Naoumoff’s own composition, In Memoriam Lili Boulanger, was written for bassoon and piano in 1993, probably for the occasion from which this recording is taken. The four-minute piece is not very interesting, and has little to do with Lili, from a stylistic standpoint, sounding rather incongruous in this context.

The various instrumental performances are quite good, although the singers are somewhat uneven in quality.