Michael Tanner

Sister act | 17 April 2019

Both Boulangers were amazing: how many composers could sustain a series of concerts dedicated to works written before they were 25?

Sister act | 17 April 2019
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Total Immersion: Lili and Nadia Boulanger

Barbican Centre

London Symphony Orchestra/Mark Elder

Barbican Hall

Total immersion weekends can prove tricky. The established masters don’t need them, while lesser-known figures often turn out to be relatively obscure for sound reasons. Nonetheless, there are plenty of composers whose works are too rarely performed, not so much through neglect as because of the awkwardness of their demands — huge orchestras and choruses, or unlikely combinations of forces.

The Boulangers present in all respects a special case. Lili, the marvellously gifted composer, died at the age of 24, while her sister Nadia, who gave up composition after some early successes because she wisely realised that she was no match for her sister, went on ‘mentoring’, in one way or another, countless musicians, performers and composers, especially North Americans, from Copland to Carter, with some influence on Stravinsky along the way. Both of them were amazing: how many composers, however long-lived, could survive a series of concerts dedicated to works written before they were 25? A few, but not the greatest. How many teachers have an ever-larger reputation after they die, thanks in part to modern means of recording?

The Barbican day opened with Bruno Monsaingeon’s brilliant first documentary, an hour-long session of Mademoiselle’s teaching, revealing an intense, stern and benevolent Nadia near the end of a prodigiously energetic life. Her ear, as the young Bernstein discovered, was infallible. And she was also intensely articulate, almost entirely without her countrymen’s tendency to pretentious waffle.

We then moved from Cinema 3 to Milton Court, for a substantial recital of songs and instrumental recitals by both sisters, as well as a glorious one minute-long work for two bassoons by Stravinsky, unmistakable and exhilarating. The instrumental works didn’t strike me particularly, but Nadia’s songs, especially the ones (three in German, two in French) performed by the superb young tenor Liam Bonthrone, showed that, while she may have been wise to give up composition, some of what she did compose was outstanding.

Both sisters were ardent composers of chansons, especially to poems written by the French and Belgian symbolistes, a tiresome crew who encouraged — though they thought they were already writing word-music — drifting vocal lines above endless arpeggios, to exhausting effect. The direst result was a 25-minute effort by Nadia, to words by the Belgian Émile Verhaeren, but everything in St Giles, with its watery acoustics, sounded much the same. Sample (translated): ‘You spoke to me, that evening, with words of such beauty/ it seemed that the flowers, as they leant towards us,/ loved us suddenly, and one of them dropped/ and settled on our knees, so as to touch us both.’ Indeed, there was little to tell between the sisters. Fluent and Fauré-influenced — he’s a composer who has repeatedly rebuffed my efforts at affection over the decades — they would hardly merit revival were it not for what came later.

So nothing to bowl one over up to supper time. But then, in the main hall, the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, with distinguished soloists, under James Gaffigan, gave a concert mainly of Lili which made one feel that her early death is the most grievous of all among composers. The indications are that had she lived Lili would have composed on a large scale, both in length and in size of musical forces. Her longest work, Faust et Hélène, is a cantata, set to a French text vaguely translated from Goethe’s Faust, Part Two. Despite its undirected wordiness, Lili, at the age of 19, went to town with a Wagnerian piece, crossed with Debussy and possibly Musorgsky as filtered through Debussy. It’s easy to see why it isn’t put on more often, yet it is certainly worth hearing and rehearing.

But it is only in the last piece, written at the end of her life, that Lili definitively achieved greatness, with a setting in French of Psalm 130, ‘De profundis’. Unlike any setting of any psalm by anyone, so far as I know, it is a passionate plea of such gruelling power and pathos that one can only wonder what the deity who ignored it is like. Where could Lili have gone, what could she have written, after that? Or could such annihilating music only be written by someone who knew her life was about to end?

A composer who seems to survive in the UK only by dint of constantly renewed neglect is Charles Ives, but recently two concerts have included things from his prodigious output. In a marvellous recital at Wigmore Hall Matthew Rose brought things to a rousing close with a set of Ives’s songs, as unpredictable as anything he wrote. And at the Barbican the LSO under Mark Elder played the Second Symphony with more ebullience than any of Ives’s American proselytisers. It’s a work that begins in a gently academic way, earning its credentials as it goes, becoming ever more promiscuous in its material, with hymns and barn dances thrown in, the whole lot ending with a brazen dissonance such as music had never known. I doubt whether it’s something one would want to hear often, but Ives is never less than enlivening, and for anyone who agrees with Mahler that the symphony should be like the world, containing everything, it makes a pretty good start.