With landmark pieces from Debussy and Ravel already on the bill, you might not expect Lili Boulanger to steal the show. But this powerful performance of her setting of Psalm 130 was a smash and grab of the first order. By the time her promising career was cut tragically short at the age of 24, Boulanger already had all the hallmarks of a great composer, using inventive modes of expression creating colour and feeling with a maturity way beyond her years.

Ludovic Morlot
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

With the twin influences of Debussy and Fauré already baked into her compositional style, Boulanger produced an elaborate but sombre setting of Psalm 130 ("Du fond de l'abime"), written during the First World War and no doubt coloured by it, demonstrating her flair for vocal writing and her keen eye for harmonic variety and instrumental and emotional nuance. Ludovic Morlot, taking time out from his Seattle Symphony duties, produced a searching and, at times, touching performance of this remarkable work. His fine hold over the architecture of the piece paid dividends, drawing out the finest touches from the delicate instrumentation while applying full force in the terrifying, heartfelt pleas. The CBSO’s playing was completely on point, from the ominous rumblings of the bass registers through the mysterious modal harmonies and deep intensity of the strings to the darkness and strained tension of the organ and brass, and with the marvellous CBSO Chorus alternately hushed and forceful, revealing suitably sepulchral tones.

But it was the way Morlot conveyed the emotional and spiritual ambiguities that impressed, capturing the despair and terror in the first part of the piece, “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord”, before expressing hope and redemption in the more serene second half, while making sure that there remained unequivocal anxiety and doubt at the close. Mezzo-soprano Justina Gringytė provided depth and power, sharply inquisitorial in her pleading and exercising taut control. This was a rich and soulful performance, with a great deal of substance. 

This year marks the centenary of the deaths of both Boulanger and Debussy, so Morlot’s inclusion of their music in this programme of French tableaux was both apt and enticing. Two orchestral masterpieces from Debussy dating from the 1890s gave characteristic colour and misty imagery. Opening with Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, we were already in familiar territory. But we sometimes forget that, aside from its popularity, this piece was a major turning point in music. Its hazy chromaticism, fluid motion and colourful orchestral palette marked a new departure, developed further in pieces like Nocturnes. Prélude’s place in history was not lost on Morlot, who carefully and patiently shaped its dreaminess and eroticism, not over-stating the case and falling just this side of listless. He created subtle ebb and flow, drawing some wonderful wind ensemble playing, a beautifully floating flute solo and opalescent strings. 

In Nocturnes, which conveyed, in three contrasting scenes, “the various impressions and the special effects of light”, Morlot showed his natural feel for phrasing and timbral delicacy, particularly in Nuages, while displaying a predilection to be leisurely in more sprightly episodes, although clearly savouring every moment. Nevertheless, this was a well-judged performance, with the bouncy bustle of Fêtes leading to a serene Sirènes, aided by the wonderful clarity and purity of the CBSO Youth Chorus producing flowing, calming lines over finely crafted rippling orchestral textures. 

Ravel’s Boléro still gets the heart pumping. But Morlot and the exceptional CBSO certainly made you wait for it. Ravel did not care for performances of this piece that were too pacy, preferring a more measured tempo, so Morlot played this to the letter. And while the whole piece is a gradual crescendo, he made sure not to crescendo too early, keeping plenty in reserve and adding to the thrill of the climax. There was swagger in this performance (and not just from trombone and saxophone!), revealing the cultured and effervescent CBSO in all its glory, all sections playing superbly and showing furious physicality in the closing pages.