Wednesday 15 September 2021

Sheer diversity: The Boulanger Legacy - music for violin and piano from the Boulanger sisters and three of Nadia's pupils, one Polish, one American, one Argentinian

The Boulanger Legacy - Lili Boulanger, Grazyna Bacewicz, Astor Piazzolla, Leonard Bernstein, Nadia Boulanger; Merel Vercammen, Dina Ivanova; TRPTK

The Boulanger Legacy
- Lili Boulanger, Grazyna Bacewicz, Astor Piazzolla, Leonard Bernstein, Nadia Boulanger; Merel Vercammen, Dina Ivanova; TRPTK

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An imaginative selection of music for violin and piano from sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger alongside that of Nadia's pupils

Nadia Boulanger's pupils were so many and varied, from Aaron Copland to Jean Françaix, from Philip Glass to Daniel Barenboim, from Elliott Carter to Quincy Jones, from Bert Barcharach to John Eliot Gardiner, that each recital looking at their music will inevitably take a different route. 16 September is Nadia Boulanger's birthday, so it seems a good point to consider her legacy.

A disc released earlier this year, The Boulanger Legacy on the TRPTK label by Dutch violinist Merel Vercammen and Russian pianist Dina Ivanova places the music of Nadia Boulanger and her sister Lili Boulanger alongside that of three of Nadia Boulanger's pupils, Grazyna Bacewicz, Astor Piazzolla and Leonard Bernstein, providing three very different takes on what a Nadia Boulanger pupil might be.

We begin with Lili Boulanger's Nocturne and Cortege, the first originally written for flute and piano and the latter published as a companion piece. Nocturne has nothing to do with night (the title is the publisher's), it is a lovely sung melody with Spanish hints in the piano, with just enough to suggest a passionate night time serenade, whilst Cortege is a delightfully fleet piece. Both works show Lili Boulanger's debt to other French composers but also her imagination and her own voice.

Grazyna Bacewicz made a name for herself both as a composer and as a violinist. She studied in Paris in the 1930s, violin with Carl Flesch and composition from Nadia Boulanger. Bacewicz' output included a significant amount for her instrument, seven violin concertos, seven string quartets and five violin sonatas, along with four symphonies, most of which is still not as known as it should be. On this disc we hear her Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano from 1948.

The sonata is in four movements. The first gives us a chance to savour the stylish neo-classical element to Bacewicz' voice. There is complexity here, and we must bear in mind that Bacewicz stayed in her native Poland, adapting her style to suit political realities whilst never abandoning her own voice. Vercammen and Ivanova bring a lovely quicksilver quality to the music as moods flash by, whilst the slow movement is quiet and intense, with a subtly disturbing element to this night time. The scherzo is sharply characterised and brilliant, and we end with a slower movement where we get something of a romantic atmosphere but with intelligent spice in the harmonies. This isn't specifically French inspired music, but you can hear how the clarity and elegance in Bacewicz's writing comes about.

Next comes Lili Boulanger's D'un matin de Printemps. Whilst this was originally written for violin and piano, Lili Boulanger made a number of different versions from piano trio to orchestra. Whilst we may be familiar with the lusher orchestral version, it is lovely to hear the clarity and elegance of just violin and piano.

Leonard Bernstein used to turn to Nadia Boulanger for advice, and he was one of the last people to speak to her. His Violin Sonata is a very early work dating from 1939, but he would reuse some of the material in later works including his Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety

Bernstein was just 21 when he wrote the sonata, studying at Harvard where his teachers included Walter Piston, but Aaron Copland was another big influence and both Piston and Copland had studied with Boulanger. This sonata is a set of variations, presented as theme and six variations and in it we can hear the young composer wrestling with modernism and with style. You might not immediately recognise this as Bernstein, but it is impressively done. Complex and taxing, with plenty of spice in the harmony and combining a neo-Classical feel with some pretty strong harmonies. Interesting;y the passionate presentation of the main theme is the longest movement, and throughout we feel the composer's striking imagination. The sonata predates Bernstein's first published work (his Clarinet Sonata of 1942) but on this fine showing it is well worth examining.

Nadia Boulanger's teaching though it relied on endless hours of counterpoint exercises and analysis of Brahms, was not completely dogmatic and hearing Astor Piazzolla play a tango on his bandoneon she encouraged him to continue in that vein, thus giving the impetus for his tango nuevo style. Here we hear his Le Grand Tango, written for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and heard here in a violin version by Sofia Gubaidulina - pedigree indeed.

We cannot expect a piece written for Rostropovich to have that sort of 'down and dirty' element which characterises Piazzolla's music for his own ensembles, but Vercammen and Ivanova manage to imbue the music with vivid moments, as the busy violin part wanders from bravura to pure tango. The two capture the work's rather restless character, as it moves around, each moment strongly characterised with some fabulous rhythms from Ivanova and Vercammen really digging into her instrument, so that we have some moments of real abandon.

Finally we hear something by Nadia Boulanger herself. Though she abandoned composing in favour of supporting her sister, Nadia Boulanger came within a whisker of winning the Prix de Rome and left a small but interesting body of work. There is nothing for violin and piano, though, so we hear the performers' arrangement of the first of her Three Pieces for Cello.

This is an interestingly imaginative disc, giving us a small selection of music by the Boulanger sisters alongside composers who studied with Nadia, giving a sense both of her influence and of the wide range of her pupils. The disc also brings to the fore two works, those by Bacewicz and Bernstein, which might deserve to be better known

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) - Nocturne
Lili Boulanger - Cortege
Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) - Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano
Lili Boulanger - D'un matin de printemps
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) - Sonata for violin and piano
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) - Le grand tango
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) - Modere from Trois Pieces
Merel Vercammen (violin)
Dina Ivanova (piano)
Recorded 29 September to 1 October 2020 at Westvest90 church in Schiedam, the Netherlands
TRPTK 1CD [57:48]

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month