Lili Boulanger, Stravinsky

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Lili Boulanger,Stravinsky
WORKS: Psalms 24, 129 & 130 (Du fond de l’abîme); Vieille prière bouddhique
PERFORMER: Sally Bruce-Payne (mezzo-soprano), Julian Podger (tenor); Monteverdi Choir, LSO/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 463 789-2
Lili Boulanger made history in 1913 by becoming the first woman to receive the Prix de Rome; she was just 19. And during her stay in Rome in 1916, a mere two years before her premature death, she divided her time between nursing war-injured musicians and writing three extraordinary Psalm settings.

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Psalms 24 and 130 have already been impressively recorded by Yan Pascal Tortelier (Chandos); but John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra take on all three, plus the exotic and hypnotic Vieille prière bouddhique, creating outstanding performances of these constructions gigantesques. The knack is to give the illusion of these works belonging very much to their own time (think back to Debussy’s St Sebastien, think ahead to Messiaen) – and yet belonging to no time. And these are performances that tackle the music’s primitivism, its unflinching, unsparing setting of the texts head-on.

For Psalm 24, voices are bugle-bright, orchestral rhythms searing, as Julian Podger’s high tenor soars sensuously over dark, pulsing brass. Complex harmonies and robust male-voice diction shape the affliction of Psalm 129. And, for Boulanger’s masterwork, her great ‘De profundis’ of Psalm 130, Podger is joined by mezzo Sally Bruce-Payne and a vast, yet infinitely variegated choral and orchestral palette for the 27-minute cantata of anguish, as it travels from fear to hope.

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After all that, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms seems pretty tame. But this, too, is an unusually fine performance: raw and direct of vocal timbre, and with some of the most sweetly and subtly inflected ‘Alleluia’s in the business. Hilary Finch