There remain many composers whose names are undeservedly more familiar than their music; Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) is a prime example, having left a legacy of a number of masterpieces despite dying at the tragically early age of 24. Though she was the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, one could plausibly argue that her surname is well-known largely thanks to the great fame of her elder sister Nadia, the brilliant musical pedagogue, who always maintained that her younger sibling had the greater compositional talent. The Spectrum Singers, directed by John Ehrlich, did Lili a great service May 18th at First Church, Cambridge, in presenting outstanding performances of a number of her smaller-scale choral works alongside some of Gabriel Fauré’s, both familiar and unfamiliar. This pairing of composers was particularly happy in that both sisters studied with Fauré, and there was a mutual admiration society among the three.
The program opened with three aquatic-themed pieces, Fauré’s Le ruisseau and Boulanger’s Les sirènes and La source. In the Fauré the sopranos made an immediate impression with their pristine, pure tone, soon joined by suave altos. Throughout, pianist Vytas J. Baksys drew a vivid image of the flowing and caressing stream. Les sirènes, also for women’s voices and piano, was appropriately seductive owing to the transparency of the choral sound which allowed the iridescent harmonies their full effect. The carefully observed dynamics—the subito pianissimos, most of all—were further bewitching. Here too and in La source, Baksys fully exploited the orchestral piano parts. La source was likewise enchanting, but lest one think that it was no more than the lush musical seduction of the French stereotype, the composer included an accomplished canon in the final stanza. Two soloists, soprano Tricia Kennedy in the Fauré and mezzo Elaine Bresnick in Les sirènes, acquitted themselves honorably. My only quibble was that, printed texts notwithstanding, it remains the responsibility of all singers to make the texts comprehensible; all too often consonants were virtually or entirely inaudible. While the chorus generated a wonderful sense of atmosphere, it need not have been at the expense of the texts.
There followed a fascinating setting by Fauré of the Victor Hugo poem Les djinns, a delicious piece of exotica from early in the composer’s career. In Islamic theology, djinns are invisible spirits, good, evil, or neutral; Hugo’s are decidedly the evil variety, a swarm of them attacking the narrator’s house until he invokes the protection of the Prophet. The poet constructs his opus most cleverly, beginning with lines of only two syllables and lengthening them only one syllable per stanza until the height of the attack when he suddenly jumps from six syllables to ten. Following the Prophet’s presumed arrival, the syllables taper off in symmetrical fashion. Fauré ingeniously reflects this structure, casting the piece in the form of a massive crescendo/diminuendo, employing both dynamics as well as thickening and thinning of texture. Ehrlich and the chorus impressed with their careful gradation of dynamics, including localized “hairpins” within the larger ones. They were also fully responsive to the colors and theatricality of the unusually unbuttoned composer. Baksys handled the all-but-symphonic piano part with assurance and a commensurate range of colors.
Fauré’s Madrigal bore only passing resemblance to the classic English form, with the men singing in alternation with the women until they unite in the final stanza. The text, by Armand Silvestre (a poet who supplied the texts of a number of Fauré’s songs), is essentially a battle of the sexes, each group reproaching the other for being stony-hearted. Ultimately, they agree that the chances for love are quite limited, and one must seize the opportunity when it presents itself. The poem’s conclusion, however, is less than optimistic: “And our folly is the same: To love the one who shuns us, To shun the one who loves us.” As ever, the Spectrum Singers’ exemplary transparency of tone allowed the composer’s adventuresome, at times Debussyan, harmonies to emerge clearly.
The powerful Hymne au Soleil of Boulanger ended the first half emphatically. This paean to the sun seems to compare the daily awakening of dawn to the seasonal one of spring. Moving largely in chords and defiantly including plenty of parallel octaves and fifths, it requires excellent intonation and received it. A listener encountering such Promethean music for the first time could hardly associate it with a near-lifelong invalid. John Ehrlich, the Spectrum Singers, mezzo Elaine Bresnick, Vytas J. Baksys, and Heinrich Christensen (the piano part calls for a third hand!) gave the work a suitably forceful reading that did not lack refinement.
The Pie Jesu of Lili Boulanger was her last work and certainly a personal one, dictated from her deathbed; it uses the Requiem text and is scored for voice, string quartet, harp, and organ. Using the Spectrum soprano section perhaps did not have quite the intimacy of a single singer, yet these vocalists made it a heart-rending plea to Jesus to grant the dead eternal rest. Equally to be commended were the sensitive instrumentalists, whose nuanced playing progressed from suffering chromaticism to a luminous and serene ending: violinists Daniel Stepner and Mark Berger, violist Barbara Wright, cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws, harpist Judy Saiki Couture, and organist Heinrich Christensen.
The program concluded with Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, the most comforting of all Requiems as well as one of the most widely performed. The great achievement of Ehrlich and Spectrum was to make the highly familiar seem fresh. This was accomplished by the exceptional blend and unanimity of tone and by a more than perfunctory regard to the composer’s indicated dynamics. Pianissimos, for instance, could be reverent, awed, fearful, etc., but they were all genuinely hushed, even whispered; consequently, when the infrequent fortissimos arrived, they had great impact and drama. There were felicitous moments everywhere, but to cite a few: the exemplary dynamic control of the opening; the celestial ascending “Amen” near the end of the Offertory; in Agnus Dei the sustained sopranos’ note on “lux” before the surprising harmonic shift; the attention to key words (e.g., “tremenda”) when the chorus took up the “Libera me” text. Baritone Mark Andrew Cleveland sang his two solos expressively with handsome tone. Soprano Laura Serafino Harbert, aside from swallowed consonants and some overly closed vowels (“requiem”), gave us a radiant Pie Jesu, as far removed from Boulanger’s setting as would seem possible. In sum, I heard a very familiar “old friend” with new ears and was moved as well. What more can one ask?
Music-lovers all too infrequently have an opportunity to hear the beautiful and brilliant works of Lili Boulanger as well as the lesser-known Fauré. The Spectrum Singers’ and John Ehrlich’s excellent concert, I hope, will inspire more. To borrow Richard Buell’s phrase: received with thanks.