When I first unwrapped this double album exclusively devoted to Nadia Boulanger, I felt that the music would not be a patch on that of her ill-fated sister Lilli who died so young in 1918 at just 25. I love Lilli’s music greatly and from what little I knew of Nadia (from just the piano and cello pieces released by Marco Polo in 1993, 8.223636) I had low expectations.
Yet why should I have done, after all Nadia was very highly respected? She had been known as one of the finest and most sought-after teachers of the twentieth century. Stravinsky consulted her; Copland worshipped her, as did Jean Francaix and Lennox Berkeley. Nadia helped in the rediscovery of Monteverdi, recording some of his music and she did the same for Schütz. She was clearly a woman of considerable musical insight and strength and this confidence had been born out of her own all too brief composing career in the first twenty years or so of the century. After which she gave up.
Why did she stop? It seems to me that she compared herself too unfavourably with her genius of a sister who had been a child prodigy, secondly she apparently felt that her music was of “no use”; she was extremely self deprecating and was strongly critical of her music and indeed of others whom she felt fell below the highest technical and imaginative standards.
Nadia had been a pupil of Fauré as had Lilli. Lilli is only occasionally influenced by the older master whereas on hearing Nadia’s songs one sometimes can feel Fauré leaning over her shoulder. They both share certain harmonic twists and turns, a love of occasional and increasing modality and an emphasis on the melodic line with idiomatic piano support, like broken chords and arpeggios. She is also not ashamed to use the fairly new concept of the whole scale and the first track; ‘Versailles’ (1906) a setting of Albert Samain shows that to good effect.
Boulanger and Fauré also both share a similar taste in poetry – Verlaine, Maeterlinck, Mauclair and other minor contemporary poets; she also, curiously, set Heine. But, Nadia was developing in her way and there are times when her climaxes, often centrally placed, are much more impassioned than those of Fauré and even more than the text itself might suggest. It seems that the tragedy of losing her sister so early plays out through Nadia's subconscious into the settings.
The themes that Boulanger likes tend towards the natural world, God in nature, the sea and lost love. ‘La Mer’ (1910), a setting of Verlaine is an obvious example. There is however some stylistic development. As we pass into the period after World War 1 the chosen texts and the consequent music become darker and harmonically more ambiguous as in ‘Au bord de la Route’ (1922) which begins “This man did not want to live anymore” (Camille Mauclair). In the same year she composed ‘Léchange’ with its pounding piano part, also Mauclair “Exchange, sad exchange, Iron ring for gold ring”.
It’s interesting that not all of the songs were submitted for publication in her lifetime, the unpublished ones I feel are less original in harmony and effect than the ones she allowed to be published. It is good news, though, that Nadia’s music is in the process of complete publication. These discs include all of ‘Mademoiselle’s’ songs, organ works, cello pieces and piano solos; there are some large scale works which still need the attention of her devoted followers. Predominantly she preferred songs with the organ being favoured as a second choice. There is, peculiarly, little for piano, the Vers la vie nouvelle being the best, quite haunting and the Trois pièces for cello although very telling in performance are, sadly, rather short winded.
But I have to say that I have found much of this music very beautiful and moving, and the performances have enhanced my enjoyment. Both singers seem ideal especially the warm toned Alek Shrader and the Cavaillé Coll organ at the Madeleine Church in Paris (illustrated on the back of the booklet) which Mademoiselle knew well is a typical bundle of French joy, with the Trois improvisations being particularly pleasing. All performances allow the music to speak although the piano when accompanying, sounds a little boxy.
I have mentioned that some works were recorded in 1993 and it seems that thirteen of the songs have been recorded elsewhere.
The documentation is very useful. There is a personal reminiscence from a Boulanger pupil and friend by pianist Carol Rosenberger (born 1933) that I much enjoyed and which threw much light on the background of the period. Lucy Mauro, the pianist, then writes briefly about the project in general and about future plans and then there are extensive ‘Notes on the Program’ by Lindsay Koobwith with comments on each of the songs and later pieces as well as full texts, which are excellently translated.
As you may gather, I heartily recommend this fascinating double CD.
Track listings: CD1
1. Versailles (3.05)
2. J’ai frappé [1.59]
3. Chanson [1.26]
4. Chanson [2.02]
5. Heures ternes [2.49]
6. Le beau navire [3.04]
7. Mon Coeur [3.05]
8. Doute [2.47]
9. Un grand sommeil noir [2.02]
10. L’ échange [3.24]
11. Soir d’hiver [3.40]
12. Ilda [3.20]
13. Prière [3.38]
14. Cantique [2.03]
15. Poème d’amour [3.50]
16. Extase [2.56]
17. La mer [2.53]
18. Aubade [2.00]
19. Au bord de la route [2.18]
20. Le coutou [1.57] CD2
1 Soleils couchants [2.24]
2. Élegie [3.30]
3. O schwöre nicht [2.03]
4. Was will die einsame Thräne [2.32]
5. Ach, die Augen sind [2.09]
6. Écoutez la chanson bien douce [6.03] Works for solo Piano
7. Vers la vie nouvelle [4.30]
8. Pièce No 1 in D minor [1.06]
9. Pièce No 2 in D minor [1.26]
10. Pièce No 3 in B minor [0.51] Works for Cello and Piano
11. Modéré [3.14]
12. Sans vitesse et a l’aise [2.21]
13. Vite et nerveusement rythmé [2.58] Works for Organ
14-16. Trois improvisations [11.11]
17. Pièce sur des airs populaires flamands [7.18]