Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger commemorated at the Proms

Absurd comparisons help no one: it is not in any sense meaningful to
compare one of the most important, endlessly rewarding composers of the
twentieth or any other century, the creator of music as significant for its
course as that of Schoenberg or Stravinsky, with that of a fine,
exceptionally promising talent cruelly cut short at the age of
twenty-three. This is not a competition. Suffice it to say that Boulanger’s
setting of Psalm no.130 needs no apologies from anyone. It stands, never
falls, on its own merits.

It certainly received no apologies in this commanding performance from the
CBSO, CBSO Chorus, Justina Gringyt?, and Ludovic Morlot. They clearly
believed in it; so therefore did we. The piece opens – and certainly did in
performance – de profundis (or rather ‘du fond de l’abÓme’): dark,
deep, with an intense sense of drama that pervades, impels its twenty-five
minutes or so as a whole. This was a true invocation: ‘je t’invoque, lahvÈ,
AdonaÔ’. In melody and harmony it seemed very much haunted by the First
World War, during which it was composed (1914-17). Chorus and orchestra
alike offered clarity, warmth, and heft too. As will always be the case
with such a work, I could not help but think of other music of which it
reminded me: occasionally, perhaps ironically, Vaughan Williams (via
Ravel?), even some of Szymanowski’s choral writing, although it has none of
that composer’s complexity. Debussy too, in St Sebastian mode? And
yet it could certainly never be pinned down to influence, nor to ‘voice’.
If Ravel at all, it was the Ravel of the Left Hand Piano Concerto – yet
that was, of course, still to come: more than a decade later. Spitting,
sinful song of the chorus – ‘Si tu prende garde aus pÈchÈs…’ – found itself
transformed by the rich, dark, almost instrumental mezzo-soprano of
Gringyt?, duetting with various orchestral soloists (and a tenor from the
chorus), and vice versa. This was undoubtedly a personal response
to the hallowed text – yet sincerity, as Stravinsky reminded us, is never
enough; it may not be necessary. The true mastery of this setting meant
that, just as with many ‘bigger names’, the question never arose. Here was
an ultimate illumination that was anything but naÔve.

Debussy had preceded the psalm, with that foundational work of musical
modernity, PrÈlude ‡ l’aprËs-midi d’un faune. Exquisitely soft and
– yes, that inevitable word – languorous, its opening sounded slower than
usual – not, however, to its detriment. Morlot caressed Debussy’s lines,
had them luxuriate, in a way that is now a little unfashionable. Yet if
phrase endings were often held back, this was no mannerism; the method made
sense, just as it did when some phrases were lightly pushed, momentum
building, the goal justly vague. (This is not Beethoven!) Indeterminacy may
not have been born here; at the very least it seemed to have been
instantiated. At times, we seemed not so very far from the world of Klangfarbenmelodie. Perhaps.

followed the interval. There was no doubting here that this was the fully
mature Debussy. ‘Nuages’ moved – until it held back. Harmonic roots in PellÈas were perhaps unusually apparent. One felt the amorality of
Allemonde beneath this sky. ‘FÍtes’ was vivid, vigorous, proceeding with
fine precision and drama. There was a wonderful, hushed tension as the
trumpets, followed by woodwind, came centre stage. Rhythmic exactitude
seemed already to hint at the Ravel work with which the concert would
conclude. (We rightly distinguish between these two giants of French music,
yet sometimes it is worth asking again what they had in common too – or
might do, in performance.) The close sounded unusually dark, as if invaded
by forces that impelled it to the abyss (Boulanger’s abÓme?) The
CBSO Youth Chorus joined for ‘SirËnes’. This was a sirenic seduction that
sounded very much in the line of Debussy’s …pigraphes antiques
yet with a far keener sense of harmonic adventure. I was put in mind of
Nietzsche, in The Gay Science: ‘at long last our ships may venture
out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of
knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again;
perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea”.’ Yes, and what dangers
have ensued…

Finally came Ravel’s BolÈro. The antipathy to this work bewilders
me; or rather, I can understand it at some level without sharing it.
Whether intended as such or no, it comes across – at least in so fine a
performance as this – as experimental, even polemical: indeed as polemical
as anything in Stravinsky. I was especially taken by the way the trombone
soloist and then his section as a whole danced. (Now there is a
misunderstood concept – as if \ must always entail licence!) Indeed all of
the CBSO’s soloists and sections beguiled, in themselves and in
combination: held one captive, as sirens might, at aural arm’s length,
rendering us unable and unwilling to turn away. It was, moreover, quite the
‘French’ sound one heard from the orchestra as a whole, as it reached that
terrible climax. Quite the odyssey!

Mark Berry

Prom 44: Debussy, Lili Boulanger, and Ravel

Debussy: PrÈlude ‡ l’aprËs-midi d’un faune; Lili Boulanger: Psalm
130: ‘Du fond de l’abÓme’; Debussy: Nocturnes;
Ravel: BolÈro. Justina Gringyt? (mezzo-soprano)/CBSO Youth
Chorus/CBSO Chorus (chorus master: Julian Wilkins)/City of Birmingham
Symphony Orchestra/Ludovic Morlot (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London,
Wednesday 15 August 2018.

image_description=Prom 44: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Youth Chorus conducted by Ludovic Morlot
product_title=Prom 44: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Youth Chorus conducted by Ludovic Morlot
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id= Above: Justina Gringyte

Photo credit: Paul Marc Mitchell