Classical Album of the Week: Early 20th-Century French Masterpieces for Cello and Piano
March 8, 2021. Mon Ami, Mon Amour (my friend, my love) is the title of a new album of French music by cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Mari Kodama. Haimovitz and Kodama lovingly interpret works by French composers from the early 20th century, with an understanding of each composition's subtlety and distinctly French style.
At the heart of the album are two works, both written in 1914, one by Lili Boulanger and one by her elder sister Nadia Boulanger.
At age 19, Lili became the first woman to win the coveted Rome Prize, for her cantata Faust et Hélène, in 1913. Nadia, who had entered the competition several times but never won, considered Lili the superior composer. Upon Lili’s untimely death at age 24, likely from Crohn’s disease, Nadia decided to devote her life to teaching. She was a tireless and brilliant teacher; nearly every notable 20th-century composer from Aaron Copland to Quincy Jones sought Nadia Boulanger’s training, wisdom, and counsel.
It’s a shame that Nadia gave up composing. Her Trois pièces for cello and piano are beautifully structured, and full of imagination and compelling character. They hold their own with her younger sister Lili’s Deux pièces for violin and piano (transcribed for cello by Haimovitz.) Lili’s Nocturne in particular shimmers with an almost mystical quality.
Although Lili died too young to leave many compositions, there is a signature voice that one can recognize in all her works—this is perhaps one reason why Nadia recognized in her sister true genius, and deferred to it.
Francis Poulenc’s four-movement Sonata for Cello and Piano from 1948 is the most substantial offering on the album. Haimovitz and Kodama seamlessly bring out the sardonic wit and melting lyricism of Poulenc that can often occur within a single phrase.
Darius Milhaud’s Élégie and Haimovitz’s transcription of Maurice Ravel’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead and call for peace, are given weighty, deep performances. Haimovitz and Kodama also offer two contrasting aspects of Gabriel Faure’s art, the virtuosic Papillons, and the beloved, dreamy song “Après un rêve.”
Debussy’s famous Sonata for Cello and Piano rounds out the program. Written during the final year of Debussy’s life, when he was suffering from cancer, this sonata, and the other two sonatas he was able to complete during his last year, are a remarkable testament to his ever-evolving creative powers, even in the face of illness. Haimovitz and Kodama give the Cello Sonata an ardent interpretation, a tribute to a master composer, who, rather than retreating into the past, remained open to bold, new ideas.
Women’s History Month on WRTI is supported by Temple University, which celebrates the legacy of Agnes Berry Montier, class of 1912, and the first Black woman to earn a medical degree from Temple.