Lili Boulanger’s Fascinating Choral Works Revived

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BOULANGER: Prelude in Db. Soir sur la plaine. La source. Pendant la tempête. Les Sirènes. Renouveau. Sous-bois.  D’un vieux jardin. D’un jardin clair. Cortège. Soleils de Septembre. Pour les funérailles d’un soldat. Psalm 24. Vieille prière bouddhique. Hymne au Soleil / Antonii Baryshevskii, pn; Orpheus Vocal Ensemble; Michael Alber, dir / Carus 83489

According to the album cover and booklet, only the Soleils de Septembre is a first recording, but I’ve only heard a few of the pieces on this disc. I would think that most readers of this blog have heard at least some of Lili Boulanger’s music; if you haven’t, you need to do so forthwith. Yes, she wrote in the opaque French impressionist style of Debussy and Ravel, but her own “voice” was entirely her own. She used more syncopation than the other composers, and also more varied tone clusters, to create her own world, and within it she reigned supreme until her tragic death at the age of 25. It has always bothered me to some extent that music educators point to Franz Schubert as the greatest composer who died at the youngest age, apparently relegating Lili to a position of unfulfilled promise. This is clearly not so. Like her music or not, she was a fully-formed composer from the age of 19 onwards—unlike Schubert, who really didn’t find his voice until he was in his mid-twenties. The difference is that Schubert wrote music continuously, some of it banal and uninteresting, whereas Boulanger wrote when and what she desired.

With the exception of the solo piano Prelude in Db, D’un vieux jardin and Cortège this album focuses on her short choral works. They are not as profound or as complex as her orchestral pieces or cantatas, but they are perfect miniatures with surprising and unexpected modulations and turns of phrase. Here, they are given a float-in-the-clouds treatment by the Orpheus Vocal Ensemble and the various soloists within that group, and the effect is magical. The solo singers are soprano Clémence Boullu, Sonja Bühler and Catherine Witting, tenors Joachim Streckfuβ, Davide Flor and Jo Holzwarth, mezzos Friederike Schorling, Anne Bierwirth and Bernadette Beckermann, and baritone Christos Pelekanos, and they all do a fine job despite the fact that they all have “chorus voices” and are not as full-bodied as legitimate oratorio soloists.


Lili Boulanger

My sole complaint was that, with so many works in similar tempi and mood, the ensemble did little to vary their approach, making each piece sound virtually alike. They used a very narrow dynamic range and seldom let themselves go emotionally in the music, a fine exception being Pendant la tempête, played and sung with good energy. Of course, Boulanger herself never expected that nearly 80 minutes’ worth of her choral pieces would be programmed in this sequence, nor were they intended to be. With so few of these pieces currently available on CD, it’s great to have them all available like this, but I have the feeling that her older sister Nadia, who recorded a few of her instrumental pieces, would have given the music greater variety. The recording I have of Psalm 24 by the Elisabeth Brasseur Chorale with the Concerts Lamoureux Orchestra conducted by Igor Markevitch (under Nadia Boulanger’s direction) has more energy than the version presented here. Perhaps, as in the case of Psalm 24, the musical presentation would have benefitted from the use of an orchestra in at least some of them, rather than piano-accompanied performances. This is largely due to the fact that, perhaps at the direction of Michael Alber, pianist Baryshevskii mostly plays in a soft, tinkling manner except for La tempête and the solo Cortège.

Still, we must be grateful for any new release by this outstanding composer, and the newly-recorded Soleils de Septembre is a lovely piece, perhaps a shade too lovely with its lack of dynamic inflections. On the other hand, I was very impressed by Pour les funérailles d’un soldat with its references to Berlioz’ “March to the Scaffold” from his Symphonie Fantastique. This highly imaginative piece clearly shows Boulanger’s individuality as a composer; a piece like this could not have been written by Debussy, and would surely not have been written by Ravel, who despised Berlioz’ music. The Old Buddhist Prayer is yet another interesting piece (also recorded by Markevitch), and here the approach of the chorus and pianist are fully appropriate. The program ends with her Hymn to the Sun, with its Debussy-like harmonies constantly shifting, not only from minor to major but even in the chord positions underneath. This is another piece that was new to me, and it’s performed with a bit more energy than many of the others.

An interesting disc for the most part, with four outstanding pieces and interpretations I’d not heard previously.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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