Songs of nostalgic love from Marie-Laure Garnier, Célia Oneto Bensaid and the Hanson Quartet

This disc, released on the B-records label earlier this year, preserves a live performance given by the French-Guianan soprano Marie-Laure Garnier, the French pianist Célia Oneto Bensaid and the Hanson Quartet in March 2022.  The programme brings together texts which explore strong human feelings, namely love and nostalgia, and which have inspired creative emotional responses – joy, passion, melancholy – from three French composers of the Belle Époque.

I heard Garnier and Oneto Bensaid sing early twentieth-century French song in September 2021 at an Oxford Lieder lunchtime recital titled after Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi.  On that occasion I found Garnier’s soprano to be ‘ample and lustrous’, capable of conveying ardour while also offering a pertinent lightness and subtlety at times; and, I admired Oneto Bensaid’s unfailingly sensitive response to the soprano’s interpretative nuances, noting that she ‘relished the piano part’s many colours’ and that ‘contrasts and extreme … were effectively exploited’.

Listening to the work which drew me to this disc, and which furnishes its title, such observations are similarly appropriate.  Charlotte Sohy (1887-1955) was the composer of 35 works for solo piano, various chamber ensembles and orchestra, and though her work remains largely unpublished it is now beginning to be explored on disc.  Recently, La Boîte à Pépites – the independent record label founded by cellist Héloïse Luzzati, which is dedicated to highlighting the music of women composers whose success during their lifetimes was not sustained following their deaths – released a three-box set comprising Sohy’s complete works.  Oneto Bensaid is one of the performers on this release, but it is the orchestrated version of Trois Chants nostalgiques Op.7, sung by mezzo-soprano Aude Extrémo, which are included in the set.  At the first performance, though, in the Salle Pleyel in Paris in March 1912, the songs were presented by their dedicatee, the mezzo-soprano Claire Croiza, accompanied by a string quartet and with Sohy herself at the piano. 

Composed in 1910, Trois Chants nostalgiques set poems by Cyprien Halgan, a lawyer and friend of Charlotte’s father.  They are texts infused with weariness and loss – time, love, sensations, life itself are all yearned for and mourned, the florid imagery pulsing with former passions.  In the first song, ‘Pourquoi jadis t’ai-je trouvé’ (Why did I find you long ago?), the cello’s opening solo strives upwards, and this motion, as it infiltrates the other string lines and the piano left-hand, together with the piano’s syncopations, intimates a hopefulness which belies the weariness expressed in the text.  There are flashes of Debussy-like colour and texture, but a dark lyricism prevails as the finely etched instrumental lines converse, sometimes seeming more directly expressive of the text’s sentiments than the vocal line itself.  Garnier’s lyricism is eloquent though, surges of colour and warmth complemented by retreat, as when the poet-speaker reflects with new self-awareness, on a low monotone, “Et d’avoir cru tes mots troublants/ Et senti leur frisson qui passe” (And to have believed your disturbing words, and felt their passing thrill).  The final phrase, “Je suis si lasse” (I am so weary) is a tender sigh.

A flickering ember trembles through ‘Le feu s’est étaint …’ (The fire has gone out …), a quivering piano ostinato that is not extinguished until the final couplet has blossomed and glowed: “Où flotte un peu du parfum d’ambre/ Du chaud parfum qu’il a laisse” (Wherein lingers a whiff of the amber fragrance, Some of the warm perfume he left).  Garnier shapes the brief fragments of this short song skilfully, using the text expressively.  Sohy captures the ecstatic resonance of the imagery in the final song ‘Sous ce ciel d’hiver …’ (Under these winter skies …), and Garnier’s vocal flights are both rapturous and pure of tone.  The climax, an appeal to Death, “Viens, viens sans remord” (Come, come without remorse), flames excitedly then sinks into a cold languor, evocative dissonances in the instrumental postlude silenced by a sort of reverse tierce de Picardie, effecting a dark finality.  

These are beautiful songs by Sohy, and, recorded in this format for the first time, they alone are a persuasive reason to purchase this disc.  Similarly, this recording of Gabriel Fauré’s La bonne chanson Op.61 for voice and piano quintet is a ‘first’.  One might argue, though, that the love expressed in these songs is not of the ‘nostalgic’ kind.  Fauré selected nine Verlaine poems from the collection of the same name, which the poet had written for his young bride, Mathilde Maute, and which ends with the poet’s optimism for the future in the jubilant ‘L’hiver a cesse’ – though Verlaine’s life was to take a more traumatic turn, when he abandoned his wife and young son for the poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1872.  For the composer, though, this was a happy time, not least because he was engaged in a passionate affair with the soprano and salon host Emma Bardac to whom he dedicated the cycle and whom he described, at the end of his life, as the songs’ ‘most moving interpreter’. 

Garnier is certainly a discerning and at times bold interpreter.  In the opening song, ‘Une Sainte en son auréole’ (A saint in her halo), the smoothness and fluidity of the vocal line makes Fauré’s sometimes surprising metrical flexibility feel quite natural (though perhaps Garnier might make a little more of the words at the expressive peaks), as her polished soprano is embraced by the strings’ beautiful quasi-modal meanderings.  In the second, the vocal expression is more forceful, though always elegant, propelled by Oneto Bensaid’s gushing arpeggios that embody the text’s somewhat sentimental effusions.  The balance between the strings and piano isn’t entirely settled in ‘La lune blanche’ but I like the way that the initial calm – a lovely cadence, “O bien aimée” (O beloved), floats dreamily down an octave – is briefly disturbed, rhythmically and harmonically, in the central episode of the short song, before the moon’s rays restore a divine stillness.

The performers capture the urgent quality of ‘J’ai presque peur, en verité’ (Truthfully, I am almost afraid), its relentless syncopations throbbing in the piano, darkened by strong pizzicato cello punctuations, the textures constantly evolving.  The vocal line hovers in the middle register and is often pushed low, and Garnier’s soprano proves full and warm as it descends, projecting through the busy fabric.  Fauré verges on the melodramatic in ‘Avant que tu ne t’en ailles’ (Before you go), an effect enhanced here by the vigorous string tremolandos, as Verlaine’s poet-speaker ecstatically addresses the ‘pale morning star’ that is chased from the skies by the ‘golden sun’.  But, the performers make the frequently changes tempi and moods cohere, and Garnier moves easily between the long, flowing lines of the dreamy Adagio episodes and the vivid irregularity of the faster sections. 

Oneto Bensaid’s liquid ripples in ‘Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d’été’ (So, it will be on a fine summer’s day) brilliantly evoke the sun’s joy and the quivering of the blue sky, the ostentation quelled at the close by the strings’ beatific vision of the balmy serenity of the evening.  The musicians save their best till last: ‘L’hiver a cessé’ (Winter is over) bubbles with infectious happiness, the irregularity of the vocal phrases – which are confidently introduced by Garnier, their extended length well-shaped – adding to the feeling of brimming, overflowing delight.  Fauré tests both performers and listeners in these songs – when Saint-Saéns first heard La bonne chanson, he thought that the incessant and rapid key changes were a sign that Fauré had gone crazy! – but Garnier, Oneto Bensaid and the Hanson Quartet prove more than able to surmount the challenges, technically and expressively, and convey the songs’ sophisticated passions.

The rest of the disc is devoted to Ernest Chausson.  The Chanson perpétuelle Op.37 was the composer’s last completed work, published posthumously in 1904 after his untimely death following a cycling accident.  It is probably best known in its original scoring for soprano and orchestra, though Chausson himself made the piano quintet version, and sets a poem by Charles Cros in which an abandoned woman sings an erotic lament of love lost, remembered and relived.  Distinguished interpreters of Chanson perpétuelle are many – Victoria de los Angeles, Janet Baker, Barbara Hendricks, Felicity Lott, Jessye Norman, Frederica von Stade and Anne Sofie von Otter to name but a few – but Garnier and her fellow musicians prove that they have captivating things to say. 

Though this is a Liebestod, Garnier coaxes Chausson’s exquisite melodies to tender life, with judiciously applied vibrato, lovely clarity in the soaring flights and dark colours as the voice falls.  There’s a lingering erotic tension, and Garnier effectively contrasts the abandon of the woman’s remembered ecstasy – the “grand frémissement” (great thrill) that the first kiss sent coursing through her – with quieter intimacies, as when she confides, “Il est devenu mon amant” (He became my lover).  Though unfailingly lyrical, her soprano is quite reserved – though it projects cleanly through and above the instrumental texture – until, appropriately, in the final stanza, when she imagines the underwater fronds that will hold her in death to be the caress of her absent beloved, a quivering intensity is released.   The balance is excellent, the strings rapturously evoking the pain of absence, Oneto Bensaid’s eloquence consistently present and strongly felt.

Chausson’s brooding passions are heard again in Poème de l’amour et de la mer, though now they are escalated to a quasi-Wagnerian scale.  There is light and shade here, though, from both Garnier and the instrumentalists – the latter wonderfully evoke the delicate perfumes of Chabrier’s score as well as making its highly charged climaxes thrill.  There are some particularly lovely cello solos from Simon Dechambre.  Garnier assails the peaks easily and sonorously and communicates the text affectingly.  The ebbs and flows of the music, the modulatory excursions, and the shifting textures unfold with naturalness, and the listener’s interest is sustained through the almost 30-minute cycle.

Given that this appealing disc presents some of the works in arrangements that are probably less well-known than their usual manifestations, it’s a pity that – other than identifying Franck Villard as the transcriber of Chausson’s Poème – the accompanying material offers nothing by way of explanation about the origin of the versions performed.  For example, Fauré’s La bonne chanson is surely most frequently heard in its voice and piano form: who is responsible for this transcription – the composer himself?  There’s an autograph manuscript of La bonne chanson in Fauré’s hand for voice, string quartet and double bass, but from whence does the piano part performed here derive?  There are no answers to such questions, which put me in mind of the fact that there is, remarkably, no authoritative scholarly edition of Fauré’s hundred-plus songs.  (A little research revealed that the French baritone Martial Singher owned the manuscript of the piano quintet version, which was not in the composer’s hand but, according to Singher, had his approval.)

The brief liner booklet does contain texts of the songs in French and English translation, though there is no information about the performers, just a pull-out folded sheet containing an interview with Garnier which offers a few general remarks about her strong personal responses to the material performed, and which has on its reverse a copy of the cover illustration by Anaïs Boileau.

Presentation matters aside, though, this is both a valuable record of a well-considered and beautifully executed live performance (the recordings are clean but the applause is retained), and an interesting excursion through some exquisite French repertoire.

Claire Seymour

Marie-Laure Garnier (soprano), Célia Oneto Bensaid (piano) and the Hanson Quartet (Anton Hanson & Jules Dussap (violins), Gabrielle Lafait (viola), Simon Dechambre (cello))

Gabriel Fauré, La bonne chanson Op.61; Ernest Chausson, Chanson perpétuelle Op.37; Charlotte Sohy, Trois Chants nostalgiques Op.7; Ernest Chausson, Poème de l’amour et de la mer Op.19 (transcription for voice, strings and piano by Franck Villard)

B-records LBM048 [65:00]