Nadia Boulanger, "Mademoiselle: Premiere Audience: Unknown Music of Nadia Boulanger" performed by cellist Amit Peled, organist Francois-Henri Houbart, pianist Lucy Mauro and singers Nicole Cabell, Alek Schrader and Edwin Cressley-Mercer (Delos, two discs)
Absolutely nothing about this record denotes one of the most important classical records of this or any year -- not the venerable (since 1973) but small American label Delos or the French, Israeli and American musicians involved.
But what you've got here is historic and very great indeed: the first recording of music by one of the most important figures in all of 20th century music but one whose own music has been kept under virtual lock and key since her death in 1979 at the age of 92.
Her name is Nadia Boulanger. In her 75 years of teaching, her students included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Elliott Carter and Ned Rorem (who called her "the most influential person who ever lived," an absurd overstatement until you break down how very many great musicians were influenced directly by her and indirectly by her students).
That isn't just a large corner of 20th century American classical music, it's three quarters of the entire ground floor. Her students called her "Mademoiselle." She always said her short-lived sister Lili was the great composer in the family. And it is true that Lili's absolutely amazing music is some of the greatest music ever written by a composer who remains almost completely obscure. But Nadia Boulanger's own compositional life occupied only a small part of her very long life: from 1901 to 1922. She didn't think her own music was worth much.
You will differ completely after hearing these two discs. Listen to these songs, piano pieces and works for cello and piano and you'll, in fact, be dumbfounded that it took so long for this music to have its world premiere on record. So much of it is is of a beauty that belies that other, majestic life she led, as a pedagogue who transformed American musical composition in the 20th century.
Here are records of marvelous music, some of which has eluded the world completely for far too long. Don't call it Debussyan because Debussy is just where the first step into where this music goes. Carol Rosenberger quotes this by Boulanger in the disc's notes: "Nothing is better than music; when it takes us out of time, it has done more for us than we have the right to hope for; it has broadened the limits of our sorrowful life, it has lit up the sweetness of our hours of happiness by effacing the pettiness that diminish us, bringing us back pure and new to what was, what will be, what music has created for us." She wrote that in 1919, during the period she was composing this. And you'll hear it in the music.
4 stars (out of four)