In Memoriam Lili Boulanger

Author: 
Michael Oliver

In Memoriam Lili Boulanger

  • Thème et Variations
  • (3) Pieces, Nocturne (1911)
  • (3) Pieces, Cortège (1914)
  • Clairières dans le ciel, Elle était descendue
  • Clairières dans le ciel, Si tout ceci n'est q'un pauvre rêve
  • Clairières dans le ciel, Nous nous aimerons tant
  • Clairières dans le ciel, Demain fera un an
  • (D'un) vieux jardin
  • (D'un) jardin clair
  • Dans l'immense tristesse
  • (Le) Retour
  • Pie Jesu
  • Lux aeterna
  • (3) Pièces, Modéré
  • (3) Pièces, Sans vitesse et à l'aise
  • Vers la vie nouvelle
  • In memoriam Lili Boulanger

Not a really representative homage to Lili Boulanger, despite obvious affection and the best intentions. The most striking piece here is a curiously delayed discovery: the Theme et Variations, listed in several sources as unfinished but proved to be complete as long ago as 1978 by Leonie Rosenstiel in her book on the composer. At last a first recording; was Lili's devoted sister Nadia not convinced of its value (Rosenstiel found the complete manuscript but was not allowed to examine it in detail)? If so she was wrong: it is entirely characteristic of the frail Lili's best work in its strength and its bigness of gesture. The keyboard language, perhaps, is not wholly 'mature' (if one can use that word of a 20-year-old composer who died at 24), but it is individual even in its derivativeness: at times it sounds like Faure, yes, but more often like Faure's older, tougher brother. Much of it is dark, bare and austere, even its most pianistic gestures are boldly firm.
Anyone familiar with Boulanger's work will, even so, already be objecting to my description of the Variations as the most striking piece here: that title surely belongs to the remarkable cycle Clairieres dans le ciel (''Clearings in the sky'')? It would, were the cycle recorded complete (only four of its 13 songs are included) and were it performed more strongly. Isabelle Sabrie has a pretty but smallish, rather pale voice, and commendably hard though she works at the long lines of the tragic final song it needs a bigger voice and ampler gesture. The two other impressive songs are also given competent, small-scale performances, but Lili Boulanger at her best was not a small-scale composer. The two elegant piano pieces go well, though, as do the three violin miniatures.
Nadia Boulanger gave up composing almost entirely when she realized that her younger sister was so much more talented. Vers la vie nouvelle (''Towards a new life''), written in the aftermath of Lili's death, is moving in its grief and its resolve to surmount grief; more movingly still it quite recalls Lili in the bleak vehemence of its opening pages. The solitary song of Nadia's recorded here is sung so badly that it's hard to judge its quality; her two cello pieces would make pleasing encores. Her brief, sweet Lux aeterna is placed alongside Lili's rapt Pie Jesu (dictated on her deathbed), as it is annually during a memorial Mass to commemorate the long-separated sisters; the conjunction is touching, and the performances have a not wholly inappropriate hint of the home-spun about them. Emile Naoumoff, the guiding spirit behind this enterprise, was Nadia Boulanger's last pupil. His own little tribute to Lili is awkwardly well-meant, but his playing of her Variations is a more affecting homage. The recordings are adequate, but not very atmospheric.'

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