Clairières: Songs by Lili and Nadia Boulanger review – perfect advocacy for sibling composers

Nicholas Phan/Myra Huang
Tenor Nicholas Phan and pianist Myra Hang do perfect justice to vocal works by the Boulanger sisters, illustrating their contrasting stylistic leanings

Clairières: Songs By Lili and Nadia Boulanger Nicholas Phan (tenor), Myra Huang (piano) Album artwork cover
Clairières: Songs By Lili and Nadia Boulanger; Nicholas Phan (tenor), Myra Huang (piano), album cover. Photograph: Publicity Image

Last year, tenor Nicholas Phan and pianist Myra Huang built a recital disc around Fauré’s song cycle La Bonne Chanson. They have followed it with a disc devoted to the songs of two composers who knew Fauré from their childhoods. Lili Boulanger, who died during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic at the age of 24, is recognised as one of the 20th century’s great unfulfilled talents, while her elder sister Nadia, who died in 1979, went on to become one of its most influential teachers , espousing the doctrine of neoclassicism.

Nadia BoulangerFrench composer, conductor and teacher Nadia Boulanger (1887 - 1979), circa 1975. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Influential neoclassicist … Nadia Boulanger in the mid 1970s. Photograph: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Lili’s songs dominate this disc – there are 16 by her (including the song cycle Clarières dans le Ciel, set to poems by Francis Jammes) against five by her sister (which include two settings of Maeterlinck and two of Verlaine). Even in the earliest numbers, the differences between the composers are clear. Nadia is the more conservative, stylistically cautious – her songs take middle-period Fauré as their starting point – while her sister’s pieces are melodically and harmonically much more chromatic. Some of the piano accompaniments in Lili’s song cycle, for instance, such as that for the fourth song, Un Poète Disait, could have been lifted from a Debussy prelude.

What they share, though, is meticulous concern for every musical and verbal detail, and Phan’s wonderfully poised and precise singing matches it perfectly. As his recording of La Bonne Chanson has already shown, he is an outstanding interpreter of French song, and Huang is an equally attentive partner. It’s hard to imagine these Boulanger songs could have more convincing advocacy.

This week’s other pick

The latest of Sony Classical’s complete album collections brings together recordings the US soprano Eileen Farrell made for Columbia between 1946 and 1962. Farrell was a gloriously versatile singer, and these 16 discs range from Handel to Harold Arlen. There are extracts from Cherubini’s Medea, the immolation scene from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, and Verdi and Puccini arias, but only one complete opera, the famous 1952 recording of Berg’s Wozzeck, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, with Farrell as Marie. There’s a Beethoven Missa Solemnis under Leonard Bernstein from 1961, while among the historical curiosities is an extraordinary performance of Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, conducted by Bernstein at the opening of Lincoln Centre, New York, in 1962. Alongside Farrell, the soloists included Jennie Tourel, Shirley Verrett, Richard Tucker, Jon Vickers and George London. It’s a real box of vocal treasures.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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