A tale of two sisters

The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic honour the opposing talents of Lili and Nadia Boulanger

A tale of two sisters
Boulanger Sisters Festival (Credit: Jan-Olav Wedin)


The story of the Boulanger sisters is a curious lesson in prodigy (Lili) and anti-prodigy (Nadia). While Lili poured forth original music in her all-too short life, Nadia’s long struggle turned her into a consummate kapellmeister and teacher of formidable influence. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s imaginative Boulanger Sisters Festival (12-17 October) threw these two figures into sharp relief: through a wide range of vocal and concert music, their opposing gifts emerged, taking us from the profondity of Lilli’s valedictory Psalm 130, to the sheer sassy craft of Burt Bacharach and Michel Legrand, both leavened in Nadia’s ‘boulangerie’.

Thursday’s concert, conducted by Marc Soustrot, opened with Lili’s sensuous D’un matin du printemps. In the warm, contained acoustic of Stockholm’s art deco hall, diaphanous textures glittered, setting off jewelled string solos. Every line shone clearly even as its narrative gathered rhythmic intensity for a sumptuous, pentatonic brass climax. Delicately nuanced readings of 'Nuages' and 'Fêtes' from Debussy’s Nocturnes confirmed that the fresh iridescence of Boulanger’s palette was a match for the master, even if she was working on a smaller canvas.

Her second essay D’un soir triste moves into darker territory: it’s impossible not to think of the agonising pain of Crohn’s disease, which clouded her young life, as one follows its tortuous, slithering harmonic progress towards an unmistakably brutal funeral march.

Nadia began her training at the Paris Conservatoire at the tender age of seven, and twice fell asleep in a locked room trying to complete her end of year exams. She never was appointed full professor there, nor did she win the Prix de Rome. Her Fantaisie variée for piano and orchestra (1922), courageously performed here by Stefan Lindgren, would suggest she was not merely thwarted by prejudice. It’s a peculiarly heavy, congested work, often primitively scored, its dramatic rhetoric and empty sequences rarely delivering expressive vision. Like her Franco-Russian parentage, this could be the bizarre issue of Franck and Balakirev, lacking the lithe grace of her chamber works or the contrapuntal sophistication of her pupils. (She shared a bedroom with her mother for 49 years: the toll on self-expression was bound to be high).

If her composing gift was limited, her talent was perhaps rarer: to recognise and nurture individuality in others by strengthening the sinew of their craft.  How else can one explain the range of her influence, from Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, Per Nørgård and Astor Piazzolla - in this festival represented in his beguiling concerto Aconcagua - all the way to Quincy Jones? (Tenor Fredrik Lycke did her proud in his sunny, intimate popular song event the following day.)

Thursday’s concert ended with Lili’s luminous Psalm 130, her final major work. True to its title Du fond de l’abîme (1917), this is music from the abyss, bass trombones, contrabassoon and organ in B flat minor breathing into existence an edifice of gothic grandeur and astonishing emotional force. The massed choirs of Katarina Church didn’t always find a French piquancy to their vowels, but warmed up as the performance went on, providing dynamic exchanges with burnished mezzo Katija Dragojevic, eventually joined by eloquent tenor Göran Eliasson. The inspired setting of ‘hope’ and ‘Yahweh’ ignites the text into splinters of sonic light.  Soustrot chose to end the psalm with Lili’s rapt Pie Jesu, sung by boy treble David Weissglas, a potent blend of abstraction and heady catholicism that almost anticipates Messiaen.  One hundred years on, Lili Boulanger remains shrouded in obscurity.  This enlightened festival came not a moment too soon.

For performances see Play on www.konserthuset.se/


Stephen Johnson looks at Nadia Boulanger and others in Teachers of Genius in the December issue of BBC Music Magazine, out this week.


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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