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“Charlotte Sohy - Compositrice de la Belle Epoque”
Charlotte Sohy: CD 1 (*): Fantasy, opus 3 [1][^] – Songs of the Moor, opus 4 [2,3][^] – Sonata for Piano, opus 6 [2][^] – October, opus 23, n° 1 [2,4][^] – Four Romantic Pieces, opus 30 [5][^] – Trio, opus 24 [2,6,7][^] – CD 2 (**): First Quartet, opus 25 [14][^] – Second Quartet, opus 33 [7,14] – Country (Rustic) Triptych, opus 21 [8,10,11,12,13] – CD 3 (***): Three Nostalgic Songs, opus 7 [15,17][^] – Two Sung Poems, opus 17 [15,17] – Varied Theme, opus 15 [15,18][^] – Sentimental Story, opus 34 [15] – Meditations, opus 18 [15,16][^]

Marie-Laure Garnier [3], Marie Perbost [16], (soprano), Aude Extrémo [17] (mezzo-soprano), David Kadouch [1], Célia Oneto Bensaid [2], Marie Vermeulin [5] (piano), Héloïse Luzzati [4] (artistic director, cello), Nikola Nikolov [6], Omer Bouchez [8], Elise Liu [9], Cordelia Palm [18] (violin), Lou Yung-Hsin Chang [10] (viola), Xavier Phillips [7], Yan Levionnois [11] (cello), Constance Luzzati [13] (harp), Mathilde Calderini [12] (flute), Hermès Quartet [14], Orchestre national Avignon-Provence [15], Debora Waldman (conductor)
Recording: December 2021-January 2022 (*) and December 2021 (**) (Maison de l’Orchestre national d’Ile-de-France (*); March 2021 (Opéra-Confluence, Avignon) and May 2021 (La Courroie, Entraigues-sur-la-Sorgue) (***) – 184’ (World Premiere Recording ^)
3 CDs La Boîte à Pépites – (Distributed by [Integral]) – Booklet in French and English

At first glance, the name “Sohy” looks like a typo for “Sony”, but that is not the case. Charlotte Sohy composed a small but impressive body of music during and following “La Belle Epoque,” the years of European culture that extended from 1871 to 1914. Many of her works for orchestra, voice, piano and chamber ensembles are collected in an album under a new label, La Boîte à Pépites. Translated as “A Box of Nuggets,” (or, “Treasure Chest”), the label is dedicated to bringing to light the forgotten works of women composers.

Listening to these 15 selections, spread over 41 tracks, most of us will ask with astonishment, “Why haven’t we heard of this composer before?” Here is the unmistakable French style we associate with Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Satie, and yet so individual and distinctive on its own merits. We may hear the influence of other composers in her work, but a unique voice shines through, whether in a piano sonata, string quartet or song with orchestra. Most of the compositions on this album are recorded here for the first time, and all contain a pleasurable complexity, daring rhythms and luscious melodies that fly off the page.

Following a breezy Fantasy for solo piano performed with romantic flair by David Kadouch, we are treated to what is arguably Sohy’s most impressive compositional achievement, at least in this album: the art song with piano or orchestral accompaniment. The album’s 122-page booklet in French and English provides the songs’ texts as well as biographical information and a group of charming color sketches focusing on high points in the composer’s life.

Sohy may have been born, lived, and died in Paris, but clearly the wild moors of Breton held a fascination for her. Her opus 4, Songs of the Moor, for soprano and piano, contains six songs which the composer set to her own texts, ranging from the shimmering “The Sprites” to the haunting “Dead Leaf” which has the wistfulness of a Christmas carol. Marie-Laure Garnier invests each song—lasting just a few minutes each—with a memorable character and charm as she dialogues with the estimable pianist, Célia Oneto Bensaid. Bensaid, in turn, performs Sohy’s piquant Sonata, opus 6 with wonder and an infectious sense of discovery.

Sohy studied with Albert Roussel and Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum, a private conservatory in Paris, in the final years of the 19th century. Here, she not only was an assiduous student, but she also met another composer (and conductor) who had a profound impact on her life: Marcel Labey. Labey and Sohy married and, from all accounts, enjoyed a lifelong partnership based on mutual respect, encouragement and admiration, a strong religious faith and satisfying home life as the parents of seven children. The growing family may account for the scarcity of her compositions, but Sohy apparently had no regrets and managed to combine a lively household with a successful musical career with the encouragement of her husband. One must remember, however, that Sohy’s career played out against the drama of two World Wars. Labey was severely wounded in 1915, and in 1944, the year in which Sohy composed the evocative Four Romantic Pieces, opus 30, she and her husband were near starvation, their rations running low. As Labey reportedly once said to one of their grandchildren, “Thank you for appreciating my music, but you should go listen to (Sohy’s), because if you think I have talent, then she has genius.”

In the second half of the album, Sohy’s imaginative works receive further enrichment from the talents of two outstanding singers, Aude Extrémo and Marie Perbost. Two more unlike voices one could scarcely imagine, yet their tessituras are well within the mezzo-soprano and soprano ranges. What a joy to find these artists—as well as Garnier in tandem with pianist Bensaid—in this exciting collection. In Sohy’s Three Nostalgic Songs, opus 7, Extrémo’s mezzo voice is smoky and dark, full of restrained passion in three wintry songs of loss (lyrics by Cyprien Halgan). More spiritual is her take in Two Sung Poems, opus 17, lyrics by Camille Mauclair.

Perbost, in contrast, sings with light, spring-like clarity in the three Meditations, opus 18 that conclude the album, embodying the very definition of lyricism. Both singers are paired with the Orchestre national Avignon-Provence under the skillful direction of Debora Waldman.

The high quality of this album, its varied moods and blend of beauty and musical intelligence make this an adventurous label to watch. In this case, the three-CD set lives up to its name as a treasure chest of long-lost nuggets that are pure gold.

Linda Holt




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