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Nadia BOULANGER (1887-1979)
Songs and Chamber Music
5 Lieder (1909) [13:55]
‘Vers la Vie nouvelle’ for piano (1916) [5:05]
‘Les Heures claires’ (together with Raoul Pugno) (1909) [26:41]
7 Lieder (1915/1922) [19:18]
3 Pieces for Violoncello and Piano (1913) [7:50]
Melinda Paulsen (mezzo-soprano), Angela Gassenhuber (piano), Friedemann Kupsa (cello)
rec. 1993, Ludwigsburg, Germany
TROUBADISC TRO-CD01407 [72:22]

In any study of 20th century music, it is impossible to avoid the name of Nadia Boulanger, though not as a composer; it was as a truly remarkable teacher of composition that she is best remembered. That isn’t at all surprising, because a cursory glance at a list of her students will reveal the names of, among many others Lennox Berkeley, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud and Philip Glass, as well as performers such as Daniel Barenboim, Janet Craxton and John Eliot Gardiner. Leonie Rosenstiel, the biographer, has described her as ‘the most influential teacher since Socrates’. Well – maybe! But you take her point.

A mischievous question might be to ask why someone able to teach composition so brilliantly is herself a fairly obscure and little performed composer. The answer to that is a complex one; firstly, there’s Nadia’s younger sister Lili, who died in her twenties, yet who was already clearly a brilliantly gifted composer. Nadia worshipped her memory, and always felt that her own works fell far short of the quality of those of her sister.

Then one has to remember that progress was much harder for female composers in those days in the early 20th century. In fact, much of Nadia’s energy was devoted to encouraging and promoting the work of her female students. Finally, she obviously loved teaching passionately, so much so that it gradually overwhelmed her other musical pursuits (she was also a fine pianist and organist). Thus almost all her works are from the earlier part of her career, the latest start date here being 1916, when Boulanger was just 29.

The singer on this CD, the American Melinda Paulsen, is a very powerful advocate for Boulanger’s songs. Though nominally a mezzo, she has plenty of brilliance in the upper regions of her voice, and draws a very beautiful vocal line – important, because Boulanger, following on from her teacher Gabriel Fauré, loved to write sustained melodic lines in response to the heady poetry she set. However, this first group doesn’t quite come off, as there is a certain monotony. The clue is in the tempo indications of these five songs; modéré, très modéré, lent, tranquille-doux, grave résigné (moderate, very moderate, slow, sweetly calm, slow and resigned). A more agitated or energetic number would have made all the difference.

Which is perhaps the reason why the next group, effectively a song-cycle based on the work of the Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren, and called ‘Les Heures claires’ – The Light Hours – is so much more convincing. These demonstrate that Nadia, whatever she may have thought (and she was a good judge!), had a real and strong composing talent. These passionate outpourings were written ‘with’ Raoul Pugno, who was a celebrated pianist in the early years of 20th century France. He and Boulanger were regular performers together (and there were rumours of a closer personal collaboration – a bit optimistic as he was thirty-five years her senior!). But exactly what his role was in the creation of these songs is not clear, and, despite some research, I’m afraid I can’t enlighten you further. It could range from help with the piano accompaniment all the way to supplying the actual word-setting and melodic lines. Whatever it was, I would love to know more, especially as composers’ collaborations are so rare. There are some good notes by Walter Labhart, but he doesn’t address that issue. Paulsen sings the songs with intensity and great beauty, and is well matched by the sensitive accompaniment of Angela Gassenhuber (whose playing is a major feature of this disc). If I can pick out one of these eight numbers, it would be ‘Avec mes sens, avec mon coeur’, a stunning setting of a moving poem. Verhaeran’s work is ripely Romantic, and the strength of Boulanger’s emotional response is clear. These songs once again show clearly the influence of her teacher Fauré, and though they may be immature, let’s be fair, she was only twenty-two when they were written.

Six years separate ‘L’Heure claire’ from the 7 Lieder of 1916 that occupy tracks 15 to 21. These were important years that brought greater life experience as well as musical maturity - there is more darkness, more drama, and more variety now. The texts are mostly by Camille Mauclair, though the first, ‘Soir d’hiver’ is by the composer herself. This is an impressive poem written in 1914 as France was plunged into World War; the subject is a woman who has been left to look after her baby while her husband is away at war. The plaintive melody near the beginning owes something to Ravel, as does the powerful piano writing. The third song, entitled simply ‘Chanson’ brings a bumpy, fractious piano part over which the voice floats its urgent tale of lost love, with a vein of bitterness, sometimes even despair, that permeates the whole group. The final number is ‘J’ai frappé’: ‘My hand has knocked at the closed doors, and other hands in the distance have answered’, which gives expression to something of the isolation Boulanger must often have felt, especially before she began to gather her students around her.

In amongst all these songs are two instrumental works. The first, on track 6, is a short piano piece, ‘Vers la Vie Nouvelle’ – ‘Towards New Life’. This was composed in 1916, and is a powerful utterance in C minor. It is simply constructed, with a grimly determined first section, built on implacably repeated Cs, leading to a more gentle section which finally achieves solace in the major key, though the sense of sadness remains.

It is intriguing to ponder the true significance of this piece and its title. Boulanger was certainly at a nodal point in her career; she was coming towards the age of 30; her mentor Raoul Pugno had died two years before; the war, after which things would never be the same, was in its darkest days; and two years later, her richly talented and much loved younger sister Lili would die aged 25. After the war, the centre of gravity of French musical life shifted, with Satie, Les Six, and of course Igor Stravinsky taking centre stage. Boulanger was a friend and great admirer of Stravinsky, and conducted the premiere of his Dumbarton Oaks concerto in the USA in 1938. But you have to feel that she was acutely aware that the Neo-classical path indicated by these composers was not for her, at any rate not as a creator; too young to become a dinosaur, she quietly said farewell to composing and devoted her life to teaching and conducting.

The disc finishes with the Three Pieces for ‘Cello and Piano of 1913, a good choice, because, after two expressive and thoughtful pieces, the third, marked ‘Vite et nerveusement rythmé, makes a playful and entertaining finale to the disc. The pieces are played by Austrian ‘cellist Friedemann Kupsa, again with pianist Gassenhuber. All three musicians and the engineers deserve thanks and congratulations for putting together this fine CD of music by one of the central figures of twentieth-century music.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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