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Fauste et Hélène *
Psaume 24
Psaume 130: Du fond de l'abîme †
D'un soir triste
D'un matin de printemps

Lynne Dawson (soprano) *; Bonaventura Bottone (tenor) *; Jason Howard (bass) *Anne Murray (mezzo-soprano) †; Neil MacKenzie (tenor) †
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus;
BBC Philharmonic conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier
CHANDOS CHAN 9745 [73:24]

Beautiful, exceptionally gifted, but aware of her short mortality, Lili Boulanger created a small corpus of works that was individual and pungent. As this collection demonstrates, her style was anything but bland and pretty. Her sister, Nadia, who was stimulated by Lili to embark on her long and influential career as a teacher of composition, declared Lili to be the 'first important woman composer' - a perhaps over-enthusiastic laudation, but one with which I would not entirely argue. Lili Boulanger's style is quite individual, but at the same time it does show a quite marked influence of Debussy and, to a lesser extent, Fauré

Lili's brief setting of Psaume 24 (The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof…) begins explosively with majestic organ chords and brilliant trumpet fanfares, and an urgent male chorus in highly accented staccato rhythms. Immediately, the ear is arrested by such colourful harmonies. This is an individual and dynamic voice. Later, in the middle of the work, the music subsides into the contemplative and older church mode styles. Her use of these modes crops up again in D'un soir triste written in the last year of her life (Lili died at the tragically early age of 24) and one cannot help thinking that her feelings were channelled into this deeply felt work. It is a struggle from darkness towards light with music that seems to collapse under its own despairing weight. A muted tam-tam crash and huge bass drum figures point spectral fingers towards a funeral march with off-beat colouring on harp and percussion. This music is really nightmarish and ghoulish; but, quite suddenly and strangely, the music seems to transform itself from the personal to a wider significance for the music seems to suggest that we are a spectator on the Via Dolorosa.

The companion piece to D'un soir triste is D'un matin de printemps, written at the same time. But the mood this time is more positive even if the transience of Spring's beauty is implicit. This music is exuberant, with tenderness turning to the passion of pro-creation. Often the music is quicksilver, gossamer and fairy-light with interesting harmonies and orchestrations such as lightly tapped and brushed snare drums.

The main work on the disc is Fauste et Hélène. This is allegedly based on Part Two of Goethe's Faust but in fact it has very little to do with Goethe. In this 'lyric episode', Faust has tired of Marguerite and awakens from a dream of Helen of Troy besotted with that siren's beauty and timeless appeal. He demands that Mephistopholes summon her from the pages of history. This Mephistopholes does but warns Faust of dire consequences. But Faust persists. Helen appears and bemoans her awakening from her long sleep and tries to resist Faust saying she wants no more blood on her hands. Eventually, Faust's ardour wins her over but their bliss is short lived as the ghosts of thousands of men who were killed in the wars her beauty provoked rise up before them. After a jealous Paris carries Helen off, Mephistopholes rues, "Woe to us! We have tempted the wrath of God!" and the work ends cataclysmically as the abyss opens. Lili Boulanger's music is tempestuous and melodramatic. Influences of Debussy and Wagner lie side by side and there is much use of leitmotifs. The love music is voluptuous and perfumed. The entry of the demons is a truly nightmarish evocation with its downwardly snaking, writhing figures. Lynne Dawson singing smokily, for much of the time in her lower register, makes an apprehensive Helen, full of self-loathing because of all the carnage and misery her fatal beauty has caused, before she succumbs lustily to Faust and the flames of passion and then finally desperately clings to Faust as Mephistopholes tries to have him flee from her and her pursuing demons. Bonaventura Bottone is an ardent and reckless Faust oblivious to danger and totally consumed with his selfish passions. Jason Howard, an oaken Mephistopholes is calculating yet not entirely unsympathetic.

The final work on the album is substantial - Lili Boulanger's setting of Psaume 130: Du fond de l'abîme (Out of the depths of the abyss). Like D'un soir de triste, it is concerned with a longing for light through prevailing darkness and again there is much that is terrifying and harrowing in Boulanger's concept. The work opens ominously with cello and tuba uttering a fragment of plainsong over dark rumbling percussion. Achingly, the music attempts to rise with a desperate urgency with searing strings and searing trumpet. A chorus, numbed, chants blankly the words of the psalm and only gradually is any warmth and lyricism admitted. After a little intimacy and sentiment is allowed the chorus takes fright again and constant battle ensues between despair and hope with the work ending, in the main, on a radiant note but with a somewhat ambiguous consolation. Lili again uses big orchestral forces and luminous choral writing in vivid harmonies and colours.

Yan Pascal Tortelier leads his forces in trenchant, committed performances. This is an important release of dramatically charged and atmospheric music that is often exciting, sometimes harrowing and seldom comfortable. Yet its riches stimulate and demand repeated hearings.

Strongly recommended

Ian Lace

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