Birmingham’s Splendid Centenary Tribute to Lili Boulanger

01/06/2018

Lili Boulanger, Fauré: Justina Gringytė (mezzo-soprano); Roderick Williams (baritone); Ed Harrison (tenor); CBSO Chorus; CBSO Children’s Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 31.5.2018. (JQ)

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (c) Vern Evans

Boulanger – Psalm 24: La terre appartient à l’Eternel (1916); D’un matin de Printemps (1917-18); Pie Jesu (1918); Psalm 130: Du fond de l’abîme (1910-17)
Fauré – Requiem

On the morning of this concert it was announced that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has signed a two-year contract extension as the CBSO’s Osborn Music Director. That will extend her stay in Birmingham until summer 2021, meaning that she will lead that orchestra as it celebrates its centenary in 2020. That’s very good news for the CBSO.

Tonight’s enterprising programme coupled music by two French composers. Fauré’s much-loved Requiem has long been a staple of the choral repertoire, and rightly so. The pieces by Lili Boulanger are much less familiar but recordings indicate that they deserve a much wider audience, as tonight’s performances proved. The juxtaposition of the two composers’ music was highly appropriate because, as we learned from Gerald Larner’s excellent programme notes, Fauré was a frequent visitor to Lili’s family home and took great interest in her musical development.

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) died tragically young, her promise cut short by chronic ill health from early childhood, which led to her premature death at the age of just 24. Despite such a short life span she managed to compose a notable corpus of music and she achieved the signal distinction of being the first woman to win the coveted Prix de Rome. This she accomplished in 1913 with her cantata Faust et Hélène. During her year in Rome she worked on the composition of three Psalm settings, two of which were on this programme: missing was Psalm 129.

Just the day before the concert I learned quite by chance of a fascinating precedent to this concert from long-time CBSO supporter, Tim Walton. On 9 March 1967 he attended a CBSO concert in Town Hall, Birmingham in which Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 24 and Pie Jesu were performed together with her setting of Psalm 129. Also on the programme was the Fauré Requiem. On the podium that evening was Lili’s sister, the conductor and renowned teacher, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), who would have been 79 at the time of that concert. Tonight, 51 years later, the very much younger Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla reprised a good deal of Nadia’s programme. (Incidentally, anyone wishing to get a feel for how those 1967 Nadia Boulanger performances might have sounded should try to track down a BBC Legends CD – BBCL 4026-2 – on which she conducts BBC forces in live performances of Lili’s Psalm 24, Pie Jesu and Psalm 130 as well as the Fauré Requiem. It’s a very valuable disc and in the Fauré she has the same two soloists – Janet Price and John Carol Case – who sang for her that night in Birmingham.)

The CBSO Chorus opened proceedings tonight with the short setting of Psalm 24 (‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof’). The accompaniment is provided by brass, organ, timpani and harp. As Gerald Larner wrote in the booklet notes for a recording that I have, the setting is ‘more like an act of defiance than a hymn of praise.’ The brass and male voices were impressively incisive in the opening pages. The piece as a whole was very well delivered and made an exciting opening. The short tenor solo part-way through was very well sung by Ed Harrison, a member of the CBSO Chorus.

Next came D’un matin de Printemps, probably completed in January 1918. This is one of a pair of orchestral pieces on which Lili worked contemporaneously: its companion is the slightly longer and much darker D’un soir triste. It’s a pity that time constraints didn’t permit us to hear both works side by side but in the context of the programme D’un matin de Printemps was the correct choice since it offered an excellent contrast with the two psalm settings. In this piece Boulanger displays a lightness of touch and texture in music that is indisputably Gallic in character. The CBSO played it very well under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s spirited direction. I especially admired the deftness of the playing in the middle section of the piece.

Pie Jesu – an obvious link with Fauré – was Lili’s last work, dictated to Nadia shortly before she died. The piece was composed for solo soprano accompanied by organ and string quartet. However, on this occasion, Ms Gražinytė-Tyla opted to give a performance opportunity to the CBSO Children’s Chorus, who sang it in unison – and from memory. The children sang it very nicely although, inevitably, the intimacy of the original scoring was sacrificed. That said, a performance by just six musicians might have been out of scale in this large venue and in the context of the programme as a whole. It was surely right to give these young singers the opportunity to sing this rather lovely miniature.

The switch from the innocence of the children’s delivery of Pie Jesu to the sepulchral, forbidding opening of Psalm 130 (‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord’) was a sharp contrast. This setting contains a great deal of powerful, dark and dramatic writing. Although much of the composition work was undertaken in the relative security of Rome, Lili’s music surely reflects the great apprehension of the French people in the years when the Great War was being waged on their soil. Factor in also Lili’s sense of her own mortality and the tension in the music is scarcely surprising. This was a gripping performance. The CBSO Chorus sang with tremendous commitment and great intensity. If I have a criticism it would be that the French text did not always come over too clearly – as was also the case in Psalm 24. However, I have a similar difficulty at times with their 1999 Chandos recording of the work, made under studio conditions, which leads me to wonder if the problem may lie more with the word setting and scoring rather than with the singers themselves. This, though, was a minor issue in a terrific choral performance. The choir’s excellence was matched by the CBSO’s incisive and powerful playing. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla took the score by the scruff of the neck and conducted with great drive and dramatic flair, though the more expressive passages in the score were done with sympathy. The setting includes an important part for a mezzo soloist and the contribution of the Lithuanian mezzo, Justina Gringytė was highly impressive. I don’t think I have heard her before but I admired her tone quality, engagement with the music and fine feeling for the line. Towards the end of the piece there’s a short duet for the mezzo with a tenor soloist. Ed Harrison made another sterling contribution. However, he was singing from the front row of the chorus and while his voice carried easily one didn’t get the sense of a true duet. Overall, this was a terrific performance, conducted with intensity and burring conviction by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

I thought the music of Lili Boulanger was expertly served in these performances which formed a splendid centenary tribute. Incidentally, the same artists will be performing Boulanger’s Psalm 130 again in Symphony Hall in another all-French programme on 14 August before repeating the work at the BBC Proms the following evening. The only difference is that by then Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will have commenced her maternity leave so Ludovic Morlot will be on the podium. If you want to experience Psalm 130 on CD the recording featuring the CBSO Chorus and the BBC Philharmonic under Yan Pascal Tortelier is on an excellent Chandos disc (CHAN 9745). The disc also includes Psalm 24 and D’un matin de Printemps.

After the interval we heard Fauré’s Requiem. It gives me no pleasure to say so, but this was perhaps the most disappointing performance of this radiant work that I have ever experienced. I exempt the players and singers from any criticism; I thought that the standard of playing and singing was uniformly high. The problem lay on the rostrum.

The work was given in the 1893 version with strings (minus violins), horns, trumpets, bassoons, harp and organ. That’s the version I prefer. The lower string sections of the CBSO had been reduced slightly in numbers from the first half and they played with distinction – as did their other colleagues on the platform. I loved, for example, the warm tone of the violas and cellos in the opening movement and again in the Offertoire. Throughout the performance the orchestra was very well balanced against the choir. The CBSO Chorus showed again that they were on top form: the alto and tenors sang their exposed lines at the start of the Offertoire really well and in the concluding section of that movement, after the baritone solo, the four-part choral textures were delivered beautifully and with admirable clarity. Roderick Williams represented luxury casting for the two short baritone solos, both of which he sang with his customary exquisite tone and care for the line.

So, with so many positive, what’s not to like? The programme gave an indicative time of 35 minutes for the performance, which is about what I would have expected. However, Ms Gražinytė-Tyla managed to despatch the work in a mere 29 minutes! Looking back through my notes I see that for virtually every movement I have made a note to the effect that the tempo was swift, or something similar. Maybe the conductor was seeking to impart flow into the music and, particularly, to avoid heaviness given that she was performing the work with fairly large forces. Such caution over heaviness would have been understandable but, if so, I think it was misplaced because on the evidence of what I heard I think that choir and orchestra would have avoided heaviness even if the tempi had been a little more expansive. As it was, I felt that the performance lacked any sense of space or repose and, frankly, before the end, I had wearied of the all-pervading swift speeds. The impression given – wrongly, I’m sure – was of superficiality.

Not only were the tempi almost without exception too swift; there were also one or two questionable interpretive decisions. In the 1893 version of the score Fauré includes a part for a solo violin in the Sanctus. On this occasion the violinist, Sharon Roffman, was placed high above all the other performers and behind them, standing close to the organ console. I suspect the idea was to suggest a celestial melody. Well though Miss Roffman played, the violin line was insufficiently audible until the last few bars of the movement.

A greater miscalculation, I fear, was to have the ‘Pie Jesu’ movement sung by the CBSO Children’s Chorus. I criticise this decision with extreme reluctance because I wouldn’t wish to appear in any way discouraging of these excellent young singers. However, although they sang well, a group of some 60 youthful singers can’t convey the same expressive nuances nor the intimacy of a solo singer. Furthermore, the swift tempo adopted – yet again – by the conductor made the music seem matter-of-fact.

I’m sorry that I cannot report more positively on this performance but I feel that the work was misjudged by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. As a result, despite the very considerable efforts of her singers and players the serenity of the work was completely compromised. In the interests of balance, I should say that the performance was very warmly received by the very large audience so I suspect mine is a minority view. However, this is an evening that I will remember principally for the splendid tributes to Lili Boulanger.

John Quinn

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