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Clairières
Nadia BOULANGER (1887-1979)
Heures ternes [2:49]
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
Reflets [2:42]
Attente [1:50]
Nadia BOULANGER
La mer est plus belle [2:41]
Soleils couchants [2:36]
Lili BOULANGER
Clairières dans le ciel [31:57]
Nadia BOULANGER
Soir d'hiver [3:22]
Nicholas Phan (tenor)
Myra Huang (piano)
rec. 2019, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, USA
AVIE AV2414 [53:17]

This collection of songs by sisters Lili and Nadia Boulanger is a welcome reminder of the quality of their individual composing talent. For younger sister Lili, this is no surprise and her death in her mid-twenties remains one of the greatest losses to Classical Music in any country and era. Older sister Nadia's name has become synonymous with many of the 20th Century's great composers primarily as pedagogue and teacher so the half dozen song settings presented here are of especial value and interest. Tenor Nicholas Phan provides the informative and useful liner note and in that he points out that it was Nadia who became just the second woman to ever win a prize in the prestigious Prix de Rome. This was [only] the Second Grand Prize in 1908 - a result that led to questions of gender bias against her. Of itself, this was a major achievement but one rather overshadowed by her sister's landslide First Prize in 1913.

And so that pattern repeats with the sense of Nadia the 'lesser' composer. That is probably true but simply because Lili was an astonishing talent by any measure and even in the relatively slight form of the art song as here there is little doubt that Lili wrote remarkable songs to Nadia's very good ones. The programme here - although far from generous at only 53:17 in total - is well planned and clearly something of a passion-project for Phan since he owns the copyright for this recording too. Phan's incisive voice is very well suited to this repertoire with a degree of edge to the tone that gives it strength as well as suppleness. Another bonus is Phan's willingness to sing with a wide and expressive dynamic range. But this does throw into relief my only major concern with this disc and it is a technical one. I found that I needed to turn the volume level on my system down several notches from my usual listening level to prevent Phan's voice, at the louder dynamics, becoming oppressive. The result of that ameliorates that issue but the problem then is that pianist Myra Huang's equally sensitive and nuanced accompaniment recedes too far into the background. So for my taste there is a simple issue of balance between the performers that adjustment from track to track does not solve. I would normally mention the technical aspect of a recording after addressing the music and performance but here it really is a serious issue.

Putting that to one side there are many pleasures in the music itself. Nadia's Cantique [track 5] is an absolute joy in its radiant simplicity both as a composition and the style of performance here. The text is by Maurice Maeterlinck and the result is perfect fusion of word and note. The main work is Lili's thirteen-song cycle Clairières dans le ciel [Clearings in the sky] setting texts by Francis Jammes. The cycle tells the story of a young and inexperienced man looking back at his relationship with a young woman. The liner contains full texts (for the entire CD) in the original French with an English-only translation. The score of the cycle - as well as a facsimile of Boulanger's sketch book of the work can be found on IMSLP. Reference to the score shows that Phan has a tendency to exaggerate the dynamics especially when marked above moderately loud [mf] he sings significantly louder than that - which could be another aspect of the recording/technical issue mentioned earlier. His French pronunciation is good but not perfect or especially idiomatic. The main consequence of this emphasising of louder dynamics means that these essentially pensive, yes impressionistic, songs take on a degree of tortured expressionism that I am not sure suits them that well.

The significance of this cycle, not just in Lili Boulanger's output but the 20th Century history of French song, means that it has had several recordings with both male and female singers in a variety of couplings. The only other version I know is from Hyperion with tenor Martyn Hill and pianist Andrew Ball which accounts for approximately half of that disc with the remainder devoted to Lili's works for chorus, soloists and piano. This recording is now over a quarter of a century old but was very well received on its original release. I have to say I far prefer Hill's more consciously lyrical and nuanced approach.

One of the many extraordinary facets of this cycle is not just the musical sophistication of the writing but the emotional maturity of the work. Lili was just twenty when she started work on the cycle and her handling of the concept of the piece; looking back with an aching nostalgia on a long past love-affair, is sensitive and sophisticated in a way that is far beyond her own life experience at that age. Hill is equal to that degree of insight which benefits from nuanced and subtle music point making against which Phan seems somewhat histrionic. The frustration is that when Phan does pare back his tone his voice sounds quite beautiful.

The final song in the cycle; No.13 Demain fera un an is a compositional tour de force. Not only is it the longest section but Boulager references melodic fragments from all the preceding twelve songs as if painful memories of times and loves lost are crowding in on the singer/protagonist. Comparing Hill and Phan is telling. The timings alone are strikingly different - Hill 8:58 to Phan's 6:25 which gives some indication of the different emotional approach; Hill is all pained frozen regret to Phan's impassioned loss. Both interpretations work but I do prefer the extra complexity that Hill finds. All credit to Phan for choosing to deploy such a wide dynamic and expressive range but this is a case where more tonal colour alone does not result in a deeper creative truth.

The disc closes with another beauty from Nadia - Soir d'hiver - a piercingly touching setting of her own poetry depicting a mother waiting and hoping for her husband to return to her and her son from the front line. Again the vocal dynamic range had me reaching for the volume control. Ultimately a slightly frustrating disc. Beautiful repertoire skilfully assembled into a good - if not very generous - programme and performed with real passion and commitment. Others may find Phan's almost operatic style more suited to this repertoire than I. His liner essay is excellent, as is the responsive and sympathetic playing of accompanist Myra Huang. The rather close recording and the style of singing suggest a try-before-you-buy approach however the music demands to be heard.

Nick Barnard



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