United Kingdom PROM 44 – Debussy, Lili Boulanger and Ravel: Justina Gringytė (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 15.8.2018. (AS)
Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Nocturnes
Lili Boulanger – Psalm 130, Du fond de l’abîme
Ravel – Boléro
This was the third of three orchestral Proms in which the centenary of Lili Boulanger’s early death has been marked by performances of her music. (Her Nocturne, for violin and piano, will be played in a lunchtime concert of chamber music at Cadogan Hall on 3 September.) The setting of Psalm 130 is by far the most extended and large-scale work of hers to be represented, and also by far the most impressive. Scored for mezzo-soprano, chorus, organ and quite a large orchestra, its style and content show that Boulanger was very aware of current developments in French music at the time (it was written between 1914 and 1917). The sombre content of the text, beginning ‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord’, dictates the dark nature of the work, but as the programme annotator Roger Nichols, an acknowledged authority on French music, pointed out, the mood is also likely to reflect Boulanger’s long-standing grief at the death of her father, the suffering of France as the First World War raged, and her own intimations of mortality: she would die after a long illness at the age of 24 in the year after the work was completed.
The mood of the work mirrors the progress of the text in that it travels from the expression of anger and despair, through resignation, to eventual calm acceptance and hope. The nature of the musical invention is varied and quite imaginative, the scoring for the vocal and orchestral forces is expressed with some individuality, and as a whole the work is certainly impressive. But whether it forms, in Nichols’s words, a ‘masterpiece’, is open to question. Again, one can only wonder how this gifted composer would have developed.
The performance presented Boulanger’s work in as good a light as could be. The CBSO Chorus sang magnificently with great conviction; Justina Gringytė made an impressive solo contribution, and the orchestra played with distinction under Ludovic Morlot’s intensely dedicated direction.
The concert had begun with a truly magical account of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune which had a perfect combination of quiet but very evident sensual expression and exquisite refinement. The CBSO has played a lot of Debussy’s music in this, the centenary year of his death, and its mastery of the composer’s totally individual mature style and musical personality was very evident. As it was in the three Nocturnes, which began the second half of the concert. In ‘Nuages’ Morlot kept the music flowing easily along but introduced slight variations of phrase and paragraphing that suited the gentle changes of the music’s mood perfectly. Most conductors tend to press too hard in ‘Fêtes’, especially at the beginning, but thankfully Morlot’s easier tempo enabled the piece’s rhythmic buoyancy and its piquant scoring to emerge more clearly than usual. ‘Sirènes’ was also managed very well by Morlot, and the fresh tones of the young female CBSO Youth Chorus were pleasing, but it was a large group of singers and sometimes the body of tone was too big to represent the clear but quietly elusive and mysterious songs of the sirens as Debussy clearly intended. Here, as nearly always, the composer’s direction that chorus members should be individually scattered within the orchestral sections was not followed.
Finally, a Boléro that predictably evoked a highly enthusiastic audience response. The work’s popularity, perhaps a bit less than it used to be, hides the fact that if is a most extraordinary and unique composition, a masterly study in the use of orchestral instruments and textures gradually to increase the dynamic level of the work from the initial solo taps of a side drum to the full resources of a large orchestral body. Morlot’s performance came in at just over 14 minutes, but here’s a problem. Ravel’s own 1930 French Polydor recording of the work with the Lamoureux Orchestra takes just over 16 minutes; that of Piero Coppola, made for the rival La Voix de Son Maître company, also in 1930 and with the composer present, is only a few seconds faster; and the mono LP Ducretet-Thomson recording made by the composer’s close associate Pedro Freitas de Branco has a similarly spacious timing. These slower tempi give a more languorous, sinuous feel to the music, and paradoxically the tension in the work grows more, in a hypnotically inexorable fashion, as it builds gradually and cumulatively to its climax. Without doubt, the evidence on record is that Ravel wanted a slow tempo, one which is not adhered to by nearly all conductors, who possibly think that such repetitive music needs a certain briskness of delivery to prevent boredom from creeping in. Morlot’s performance was effective in its own way, but how much more effective it could have been.