Mining Neglected Veins Of 20th-Century Music, And Turning Up Gems

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Debora Waldman conducts Orchestre National Avignon Provence in works by French composer Charlotte Sohy on a new CD.

Charlotte Sohy: Orchestral Music. Orchestre National Avignon Provence, mezzo-soprano Aude Extrémo, soprano Marie Perbost, violinist Cordelia Palm, conducted by Debora Waldman. La Boîte à Pépite BAP03D.

Georgios Axiotis: A Love Trilogy. New Festival Opera-Symphony Orchestra Sofia, conducted by Byron Fidetzis. Naxos 8.574353.

DIGITAL REVIEW — While the discovery of a long-lost musical work from hundreds of years ago is always a source of celebration, it’s important to remember that there are also much more recent compositions lying dormant and unknown. This includes the entire output of some composers who were not lucky enough to have the popularity of their works outlive them, as well as those whose compositions were never known at all, even in their own lifetimes. Two recent recordings throw a spotlight on the orchestral works of a composer from each of these categories.

Charlotte Sohy (1887-1955) is not the best-remembered pupil of Nadia Boulanger, but the new French label La Boîte à Pépite aims to change that. Their album of Sohy’s orchestral music is one of three recent releases of the composer’s music, the others covering her piano and chamber music, respectively.

Sohy’s musical education was the best Paris had to offer. Besides Boulanger, she studied with Notre Dame’s organist, Louis Vierne, and the Debussy-influenced composer Albert Roussel, a professor at Vincent D’Indy’s Schola Cantorum. But impressive connections in the Parisian music scene do not a fine composer make. The proof is in the compositions themselves, and here the Orchestre National Avignon Provence, under the baton of Debora Waldman, provides the evidence of Sohy’s mastery.

The first work on offer is Sohy’s Chants nostalgiques, Op. 7, a set of three songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra written in 1910. Aude Extrémo has a deeply textured voice, almost rough, but in a way that enhances the passion of her delivery. Sohy’s music shows Extremo’s lower register to great advantage. “Pourquois jadis t’ai-je trouvé” (Why did I once find you?) also focuses on the orchestra’s bass sounds, with long, rich lines for the cello and inner-voice melodies woven through that bring to mind Fauré or even Brahms. There is a frenetic energy to “Le feu s’est éteint, je frissonne” (The fire has gone out; I shiver), its pizzicato adding to a complex sonic structure.

The recording’s production does not do justice to these songs: The orchestra has a slight muddiness made more apparent by the overbalance toward the singer. The same can be said for the two-movement Poèmes chantés, Op. 17, also sung by Extrémo. Set to poems by Camille Mauclair, these art songs from 1922 show how the composer had matured, now experimenting with more daring harmonies and angular melodies. Soprano Marie Perbost flows with smooth control through another set of songs, the Meditations, Op. 18. Sohy wrote these verses about faith for voice and piano in 1922; they were orchestrated by the composer’s grandson, François-Henri Labey, in 2019.

Violinist Cordelia Palm is the special guest for the Thème varié, Op. 15 bis, a 1921 work dedicated to Boulanger. Sentimental and full of longing, the melodic theme floats over tender contrapuntal lines. Sohy’s orchestral writing is a living organism, always moving; even when it’s nearly still, you sense its breath and flowing blood. Palm expresses ardor while never losing clarity of tone, and in this piece the balance between group and solo is more balanced than in the songs. The natural way the solo line lies for the violin illustrates the quality of Sohy’s training as well as her own gifts.

Charlotte Sohy (1887-1955) (Collection of Flavio Nervegna)

The only piece on this recording that’s just for orchestra is a four-movement programmatic suite called Histoire sentimentale, Op. 34, a late work from 1950. It was apparently conceived as music for a film that never got made.  Sohy certainly has captured the lushness of a Hollywood score. Lasting less than 12 minutes in total, the work’s movements are miniature scenes: “Meeting on the Banks of the Stream,” “Flirting,” “Absence,” and “Forgetfulness.” The second of these stands out for the beauty of its cello solo, while the final movement was likely influenced by Aaron Copland, with a ritornello punctuated by wood block.

While Sohy would surely have identified her role in music primarily as a composer, the Ukrainian native Georgios Axiotis (1875-1924) was a teacher first and foremost. After earning a degree at Naples’ Conservatorio di Musica di San Pietro a Majella, largely under the tutelage of renowned composition professor Paolo Serrao, Axiotis immediately launched into teaching in Greece. Presumably this was not out of financial desperation, considering he was not paid for his position as the first director of the Conservatory of Piraeus. As a tireless activist for improved music education, he devoted much of his career protesting the Germanic pedagogical system that he believed “imposed Procrustian rule” on the conservatories of Greece.

Axiotis got to hear only some of his compositions played, and only in the last years of his life, at the Hellenic Conservatory in Athens. It was not until after World War II that the pieces again saw the light of day, collected by Axiotis’ son for performances by Theodoros Vavayannis (1905–1988) and the Athens State Orchestra. Since then, his work has been revived every few decades. Perhaps this recording with Byron Fidetzis conducting the New Festival Opera-Symphony Orchestra Sofia will help to keep it in the public eye.

The centerpiece of the album is A Love Trilogy. Lacking careful curation over the past century, the exact dates of his compositions are unknown. The trilogy consists of three programmatic movements heavily influenced by Greek folk music. This, it seems, was one way Axiotis took practical action against the Germanization of the Greek conservatories. But he did not throw the baby out with the bathwater: While the harmonic language and rhythms do evoke Greek traditions at times, he does not hide his mastery of the European conservatory curriculum.

The work opens with “On the Mountain,” a slow, delicate essay on how to use the opposing ranges of the orchestra — arco contrabasses and cellos converse with flute and piccolo. There is more than a little Beethoven influence present. Conversation between instruments must have been a favorite technique of Axiotis: “On the Plain” has a long a cappella flute solo at the beginning, followed by bass rumblings, which are in turn answered by a cappella oboe. One by one, other instruments join in, growing slowly from individual spring shoots into a great forest of almost Mahlerian sound.  “At the Ball” continues the thoughtful tempo of the first two movements, this time with a sustained richness in the orchestration until a tambourine introduces the lumbering good humor of a country dance.

There are several smaller pieces on the bill as well. The Prelude and Fugue, which Axiotis never had the chance to hear live, could be described as Bach meeting Wagner in Debussy’s living room. A lugubrious prelude opens out into a busy, full-orchestra fugue reminiscent of a Stokowski transcription. The single-movement Sunset shimmers with a modal sigh, while the lively Like a Game, which did not receive its premiere until 2012, is energetic with a Stravinskian tinge, although its rhythmic momentum nearly stalls out in the middle.

Under Fidetzis, the New Festival orchestra has a powerful sound that can dwindle to pianissimo without losing its underlying strength. There isn’t a weak section among the players. Fidetzis makes a convincing case that Axiotis’ music should be taken as seriously as works by his West European contemporaries.

The compositions of Charlotte Sohy and Georgios Axiotis afford us a better view into the musical realities of the early 20th century. Every era consists not just of music that, by some fate, was valued enough to be carried forward through the generations, but also works that existed briefly and were lost. There is always more music history to discover.