Lili Boulanger & Stravinsky – Gardiner

0 of 5 stars

Lili Boulanger
Du fond de l’abîme (Psalm 130)
Psalm 24
Psalm 129
Vieille Prière bouddhique
Symphony of Psalms

Sally Bruce-Payne (mezzo-soprano)
Julian Podger (tenor)

The Monteverdi Choir
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Recorded at Abbey Road Studio One, London in July 1999

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: November 2002
CD No: DG 463 789-2

An intriguing coupling of two extraordinary figures. Roger Nichols in his customarily informative booklet note asks if Stravinsky knew any of Lili Boulanger’s music. It is possible given his long friendship with Lili’s sister Nadia. It would be fascinating to know. Whatever, listening to Lili’s music, Stravinsky is just one of the names that her soundworld suggests. Others might be figures as diverse as Debussy, Roussel, Honegger, Szymanowski (in his more exotic mood), Messiaen and Dutilleux. Yet, Lili was born in 1893 and died in 1918 with little chance to hear her contemporaries of anticipate those that followed.

On the one hand her music is remarkable – all the more so considering that the three Psalm settings and the Buddhist Hymn were all written in the space of a couple of years. On the other, the somewhat hysterical attempt to claim Boulanger as a neglected master is surely carrying things too far. The choral writing, when listening to all the works in one sitting, does become rather monotonous. It’s mostly chordal and slow moving, the emphasis being on the male voices whilst the ladies sort of vocalise their way through. When combined with hectoring brass fanfares one is reminded of the sort of thing Miklos Rosza wrote for “Ben Hur” forty years later.

There are fascinating moments in Lili’s orchestration, such as interesting touches on the organ, treated as part of the orchestral texture, and Debussyian effects on flute and harp – all brought out by Gardiner and a responsive LSO. The brass is far too loud for most of the time. The chorus is mostly excellent, the balance between voices and orchestra well managed, apart from a couple of passages in Psalm 130, which sound more the fault of the composer than anyone else. Some of the high-lying solo writing gives problems to Julian Podger. Sally Bruce-Payne gives as good an account of her rather uninteresting solo parts in Psalm 130 as she can. As far as Boulanger is concerned, the sum is just rather too much. This may be due in part to the rather heavy tread and unrelenting bleakness both of the music and Gardiner’s interpretation – I find more variety and colour in Tortelier’sChandos recording that duplicates Psalms 24 & 130.

The Stravinsky is more familiar fare, of course, but as always with Gardiner all is not immediately as one would expect. Chorus and orchestra are again very well balanced throughout, but I just wish something would leap up and grab the listener in a way that I hear on other recordings, Craft, for example, or even the rather ancient-sounding recording by the composer. Here – although some of Gardiner’s speeds take one by surprise, the pacing of the first movement is on the slow side – all is too controlled and smooth.

The first movement is for the most part good, the choir strong and clear with good diction, but I don’t understand why Gardiner, along with a good many other conductors incidentally, makes a point of slowing down towards the end – there is no instruction in the score to do so and the lengthening of note values makes a marked enough change of tempo without adding one’s own eccentricities. The second movement is rather less successful – a little on the fast side, but with some incisive playing from the wind and brass players. The choral textures are a little muddy and sometimes overwhelmed, again, by LSO brass. The opening of the final movement, with its inimitable chord-spacing nicely done, the serenity is disturbed by an overdone accent on the second syllable of “Laudate”. These overdone accents appear several times, but the cool, serene ending is beautifully managed.

The most unexpected sound comes early in the last movement (between figures 3 & 4) – the on-the-beat quavers played by trumpet and harp. The harpist is instructed to play “pres de la table” – but I have never heard it sound like a balalaika before! Very odd, intentionally or otherwise.

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