CBSO and Lili Boulanger at Symphony Hall by Christopher Morley
Lili Boulanger was a genius of a composer who, after a lifetime of sickness, was taken from us in 1918 at the age of 24. It was a huge privilege for me to become acquainted with her music in 1967, when her devoted sister, the formidable Nadia, conducted the Birmingham University Choir (of which I was an undergraduate member) and the CBSO, in a programme featuring works by Lili, followed by the Faure Requiem, teacher of both the sisters.
That occasion was unforgettable, and was matched by this very similar programme, with Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla preceding the Requiem with several of Lili's works.
Lili was a fearless, shooting-from-the-hip orchestrator, never afraid to exploit the colours naturally inherent in brass, woodwind and percussion. This was particularly apparent in the wonderful scoring of her tone-poem D'Un Matin de Printemps, its lapidary glitter evoking Debussy, Holst (Perfect Fool) and even a pumped-up Delius. She was a young composer very much attuned to her era..
Her setting of Psalm 24 was almost filmic in its garishness, the CBSO Chorus (with a glorious un-named tenor) projecting amazing diction, and the massed voices of the CBSO Children's Chorus phrased as one in the heartfelt prayer of Boulanger's Pie Jesu.
Choral attack was dramatically and finely nuanced in the substantial Psalm 130, its sombre opening bringing presages of Honegger's Christmas Cantata (same text), and building to huge choral climaxes. Justina Gringyte, was the impassioned, engaged mezzo soloist (and clothed very much a la Lili).
Mirga then directed a movingly dignified, appropriately restrained account of the Faure Requiem, what few climaxes it contains conveyed with controlled power. The famous Pie Jesu had the CBSO Children's Chorus again supple and flexible in delivery, and baritone Roderick Williams brought a halo of understated fervour to his solos.
It was lovely to hear the CBSO violas topping the textures in this quietly glorious performance. Applause at the end from a full house was very late in arrival, reluctant to break the spell.