Feature review: BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion: Lili and Nadia Boulanger [Barbican Centre, 6 April 2019]

Written by: Nick Breckenfield

Lili and Nadia Boulanger in 1913

Saturday, April 06, 2019
Barbican Centre, London: Cinema 1, Milton Court Concert Hall, Fountain Room, St Giles Cripplegate & Barbican Hall

11 a.m.
Cinema 1
A film by Bruno Monsaingeon, directed by Yvonne Coursony, 1977

1 p.m.
Milton Court Concert Hall
Lili Boulanger
Thème et variations
Élisabeth Pion (piano)
Lili Boulanger
D’un matin de printemps
Maria Włoszczowska (violin), Leo Popplewell (cello) & Gary Beecher (piano)

Nadia Boulanger
Three Songs
Michael Daub (baritone) & Gary Beecher (piano)

Lili Boulanger

Nocturne; Cortège
Maria Włoszczowska (violin) & Gary Beecher (piano)
Nadia Boulanger
Three Songs
Alexandra Lowe (soprano) & Gary Beecher (piano)

Trois Pièces
Leo Popplewell (cello) & Gary Beecher (piano)

Five Songs
Liam Bonthrone (tenor) & Gary Beecher (piano)
Lied ohne Name
Daniel Plant & Rachel Hurst (bassoons)

Emile Naoumoff

In memoriam Lili Boulanger
Daniel Plant (bassoon) & Gary Beecher (piano)

3 p.m.
Fountain Room
Talk by Caroline Potter

5 p.m.

St Giles Cripplegate

Lili Boulanger
Hymne au soleil; Sous bois
Nadia Boulanger
Allons voir sur le lac d’argent; Les heures claires; Cantique
Lili Boulanger
La source; Les sirènes
Anna Tilbrook (piano); BBC Singers/Katie Thomas

7.30 p.m.
Barbican Hall

Lili Boulanger

Psalm 24: La terre appartient à l’Éternel
Vieille prière bouddhique
Faust et Hélène
Nadia Boulanger
Fantaisie variée
Lili Boulanger

Psalm 130: Du fond de l’abîme

Alexandra Dariescu (piano); Katarina Dalayman (soprano); James Way (tenor);
Samuel Sakker (tenor); Benedict Nelson (baritone); BBC Symphony Chorus;
BBC Symphony Orchestra/James Gaffigan

BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion: Lili and Nadia Boulanger
Alexandra Dariescu (piano)
Photograph: Mark Allan / BBC

This season’s final Total Immersion (following First World War and György Ligeti) was devoted to sibling composers, Nadia and Lili Boulanger. As ever – with a film and talk in combination with three concerts across the Barbican complex – this provided an invigorating day; fleshing out the lives of the featured composers with background and context that, cumulatively, became more than the sum of its parts. And yet – yes there’s a qualification this time, and a fairly fundamental one – the overriding feeling at the end of the day was that there was something of a skeleton in the cupboard (or elephant in the room), alluded to but not properly expounded. Caroline Potter mentioned it briefly both in her printed introduction and in just one sentence of her talk: that recent research has shown that Nadia’s father was not composer Ernest Boulanger but, rather, a close family friend, the architect Richard Bouwens van der Boijen (some forty-seven years Ernest’s junior).

So should the whole of the day been marketed about ‘half-sisters’? Further questions that this all begs include: how did research prove Nadia’s real patrimony?; did Lili and Nadia (and Ernest, for that matter) know they were half-sisters; and how does that change our opinion of Ernest – an old father who was seventy-two when Nadia was born – getting Nadia to promise when Lili was born that she would always look after her little sister? It was akin to having a European debate without referencing Brexit. Weird.

BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion: Lili and Nadia Boulanger
Photograph: Mark Allan / BBC

But with the information that was presented to us there was still much to marvel at: when we talk of generations we usually calculate each generation encompassing a period of thirty years; but between Ernest’s birth (1815) and Nadia’s death (1979) their two generations more than triple that usually calculated gap (184 to an average sixty years). Nadia, of course, lived more than three times as long as Lili, who was riddled with illness and what would probably now be diagnosed as Crohn’s disease, but it was Lili – under Nadia’s tutelage – who became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome (Nadia had been a runner up). And while some of Lili’s works have retained a toe-hold in the repertoire (largely to do with Nadia, or her pupils’ championing), Nadia’s are virtually unknown, perhaps not surprisingly because her stock response – as in Bruno Monsaingeon’s ninetieth-birthday documentary Mademoiselle which started the day illustrated – was that they were “useless”. As the performances throughout quickly established, Nadia’s works (mostly vocal) seem to look-back to the nineteenth-century, while Lili’s look-forward.

The film was fascinating, not only in showing the imperious mademoiselle seated next to her chosen pianist, firing questions, dismissing irrelevant answers and suddenly lifting the pianist’s arm off the keyboard, as if it was a record-player’s stylus arm, stopping the music dead, but also in its interviews with two towering conductors: former Boulanger pupil Igor Markevitch and indefatigable admirer, Leonard Bernstein speaking as gravelly (cigarette-induced) French as he did in his mother tongue. Missing from the film (or at least, not explicitly referenced) was Annette Dieudonné, another former pupil and companion, who – by the 1970s – did most of the teaching at Nadia’s Wednesday tutorials chez elle.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given that much of the music we heard during the rest of the day was written during the second decade of the twentieth-century, there was a sombre seriousness, often starting in the depths – from the first work we heard, Lili’s for-piano Thème et variations (in the more than capable hands of Élisabeth Pion) to the last, Lili’s expansive setting of Psalm 130, appropriately given the opening line “Du fond de l’abîme” (from the abyss). Lili’s piano work proved more creative and less stodgy than Nadia’s orchestral Fantasie variée which seemed all-too-constrained by the model of César Franck (Symphonic Variations), despite Alexandra Dariescu’s committed assumption of the solo part, from memory. That was the evening concert’s only non-vocal work in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s contribution, conducted by James Gaffigan. I wanted to use the phrase ‘tub-thumping’ and wondered if I could translate that into French, though Google Translate’s battement de baignoire (bath beating) isn’t really what I was aiming at…

BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion: Lili and Nadia Boulanger
Photograph: Mark Allan / BBC

The two earlier concerts were song-centric. The Guildhall Musicians’ Milton Court recital boasted eleven songs by Nadia, presented in three sets by three soloists, while over at St Giles Cripplegate the BBC Singers featured eleven soloists from its ranks which – collectively – only topped and tailed the concert in two choral works (though both with solos): Lili’s Hymne au soleil to start and La sirens to end, directly referencing Lili’s Debussyian influence with a similar vocalise for women’s voices as in ‘Sirènes’ from Debussy’s Nocturnes. The centrepiece at St Giles was Nadia’s Les heures claires (The clear hours), which is a collaborative work with pianist Raoul Pugno, almost certainly Nadia’s lover, but who died suddenly while the they were on tour in Russia in January 1914, adding to Nadia’s blighted personal life at the time. With no indication as to who contributed which bits to the eight-song-cycle to texts by Émile Verhaeren, the manuscript is neatly written out, usually started by one and finished by the other. It remains somewhat enigmatic and the cycle suffers from all-too-similar treatment of the poet’s rather turgid verse. The settings were shared equally between two sopranos and two mezzos, and mezzo Rebecca Lea was lucky to have the two best songs – the fifth, ‘C’etait en juin’ (It was in June) and the last ‘S’il arrive jamais’ (Should it ever occur) – particularly as the first of those was the one with a contrasting faster tread.

Elsewhere in the St Giles concert, there were two of Lili’s works – 1911’s Sous bois and 1912’s La Source, both practice pieces for the Prix de Rome – that featured the same four singers (Emma Tring, Margaret Cameron, Tom Raskin and Jamie W. Hall). The first reminded me immediately, both in sound and in the nature of featuring one voice at a time, of Vaughan Williams’s tender treatment of Shakespeare in his Henry Wood tribute Serenade to Music from twenty-six years later.

Earlier at Milton Court, the three vocalists – all singing from memory – negotiated their sets of Nadia’s songs eloquently, sympathetically accompanied by Gary Beecher (nice to see – as with Anna Tilbrook at St Giles – pianists with radiant smiles on their faces). Baritone Michael Daub’s triptych concerned aspects of melancholy, soprano Alexandra Lowe’s three about nature, while tenor Liam Bonthrone’s five songs were wider ranging, including three ardent German settings of Heine lyrics before ending with a contrasting pair, including the late (1922) J’ai frappe (I have knocked) – a heartfelt and repeated cry of anguish about getting no answers, which might eloquently sum up Nadia’s decision to give up composition altogether – before a much more optimistic love-song from thirteen years earlier, the fateful decade of War and family tragedy as yet unknown. Bonthrone’s ardent tenor and complete involvement in the text, almost acting out the songs was the most captivating.

BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion: Lili and Nadia Boulanger
Photograph: Mark Allan / BBC

Of the chamber works at Milton Court the (half-) sisters were perhaps more difficult to tell apart, and it would be easy to see how one influenced the other, so Lili’s infectiously seasonal D’un matin de printemps (in its piano trio version) and the sprightly violin-and-piano Cortège (a colourful parade rather than a funeral English-understood cortege) was matched in dance-like spirit by the third of Nadia’s cello-and-piano Three Pieces, added to the first two which had started life as organ works. The end of the concert turned to Stravinsky and Nadia’s final pupil, Emile Naoumoff (now Professor of Composition at Indiana) – who, as a fifteen-year-old, was at the piano in Mademoiselle. Both – in a left-field sort of way (there was no indication of either Boulanger’s preference or otherwise for the bassoon) – featured the bassoon: the Stravinsky an obscure duet for two of them from 1917, though only unearthed during the 1960s. At under a minute it’s simple piece, the parts moving in similar fashion (rather than confrontationally), but revelling in the instrument’s unique timbre. Naoumoff’s In memoriam Lili Boulanger, for bassoon and piano, is an effective piece in displaying the full pitch range of the bassoon, and worth greater recognition whether or not in the context of the Boulangers. Daniel Plant revelled in the sweeps from the lowest to the highest reaches, accompanied by the hard-working Beecher.

Lili’s best-known full-scale works dominated the BBC Symphony’s concert with Gaffigan, topped and tailed by two of her three Psalms: the fanfare-like brevity of Psalm 24: The Earth is the Lord’s, for brass, harp and mainly male chorus and the more extended Psalm 130. Young and fervent tenor James Way appeared in both, joined for Psalm 130 by mezzo Katarina Dalayman. Way was also soloist in Vieille prière bouddhique and all three works highlighted the incisive diction and ever-resourceful BBC Symphony Chorus.

Szymanowski came to mind in the Buddhist prayer, although the languorous flute solo towards the end had its own Debussyian influence. Dalayman was joined by tenor Samuel Sakker and baritone Benedict Nelson for Lili’s Prix de Rome-winning cantata Faust et Hélène – a score obviously close to Gaffigan’s heart. It’s a kaleidoscopic work, with perhaps the orchestral passages most-impressive – with Strauss edging out Wagner in its inspirations, and a touch of Mahlerian instrumentation too; Lili’s success at fashioning a successful music-drama is not to be underestimated, nor the success of this performance. Ultimately it provoked thoughts of what might have been if Lili had been able to live as long as Nadia.

Guildhall Musicians’ concert recorded for broadcast throughout the week during BBC Radio 3’s Afternoon Concert from June 22.

BBC Singers recital to be broadcast at a date to be announced.

BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 8 May at 7.30 p.m.

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