Arts: Classical: Out of the depths of obscurity, Boulanger cries to us

LSO/GARDINER BARBICAN HALL CITY OF LONDON FESTIVAL
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SUDDENLY EVERYBODY'S playing Lili Boulanger, and if you still don't know why, there is a Prom on 20 July to set you right.

Two high-profile London performances of the same piece in less than a fortnight usually means a planning mistake. Never mind the motives, though, because composers always complain that the second performance is the hardest to get, and Boulanger's Du fond de l'abime has been around for over 80 years now and few of us have a clue what a thrilling experience it is.

All through the century the famous Boulanger was Nadia, trendiest of French composing teachers, with pupils from Copland to Carter. Her younger and more creative sister died at 24. Lili made her mark and then hit the posthumous glass ceiling that was the subtle lot of women composers - held back not while alive, but by the next generation of promoters and historians, while Nadia shone in the reflected glory of the men she taught. Since Lili had been taken up in the age of promotion and publicity, her publishers bear a heavy responsibility for failing to push the work that erupted into the LSO's till then decent but straitlaced last concert of the season.

It is a setting of the psalm that goes "Out of the depths I cry unto thee", long a favourite of musicians because of its scope for symbolic murky sounds and upward-striving aspiration. Boulanger delivers the goods with flair, from rumbling organ pedals to lurid brass solos that etch themselves on the soundscape like a French Mahler. The strong character of the musical elements, and the way they come together in a dramatically evolving whole, are what gives the music its grip on the imagination.

An archetypal block-choral theme supplies fierce mutters and grief-stricken howls, while Boulanger's personal harmonic style, like an updated take on Faure, keeps the atmosphere focused.

A great buzz of conversation spread through the hall after the performance, conducted with generous intensity by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and featuring an eloquent intervention from Sally Bruce-Payne in her short mezzo-soprano solo. How cramped and mealy-mouthed it made Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms seem in retrospect. This unfortunate side-effect was no fault of the orchestra or the Monteverdi Choir, which delivered an exceptional energy and brightness of tone and gave the closing minutes a heightened, visionary calm. Whatever the context, the end of this oddly proportioned work does seem to be what we remember, forgetting how scratchy some of the music has been on the way.

So slow was Gardiner's speed for the Debussy Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune at the start of the concert that the music came to a halt several times early on and for all its exquisitely cossetted surface never developed a lasting momentum. Breadth and loving care worked better for the `Suite No 2' from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, the concert's final work.

The dawn scene developed an atmosphere as sultry as the evening outside, unharmed by some erratic detail, and led on to a finely sustained flute solo. After this protracted foreplay the wham-bam ending, all pace and no rhythm with far too loud a chorus, was effective but unexpectedly basic.

Comments