Bonnal Quatuors à cordes N°1 & 2 Arion

Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2001 and the recording is still available.

Joseph-Ermend Bonnal (1880-1944)
String Quartet No. 1 (1919) 
String Quartet No. 2 (1938) 
Quatuor Debussy
rec. 1999, Aizac, France 
Arion ARN68504 [55]

I have the impression that France is all too ready to allow apathy to choke the glories of their late-romantic musical culture. Why are there no recordings of Guy-Ropartz’s symphonies (excluding number 3)? What has France done for Lazzari, for Canteloube, for Witkowski …. the list continues.

Against the trends Arion have issued this diamond of a disc by a composer I have never heard of, let alone heard.

Bonnal was born in Bordeaux and entered the Paris Conservatoire at age seventeen. There he studied with de Bériot, Vierne, Tournemire and Fauré. He held various organist positions and indeed wrote much for the ‘King of Instruments’. In 1920 after being denied the post of organ professor at Strasbourg he took up various teaching and organ appointments at Bayonne. His music struggled against the illogical snobbism associated with a provincial (i.e. non-Parisian) career.

The four movement First Quartet is a work of Ravelian abundance and torrential floodtide. The lyrical candlepower of the music comes from the same source as the Ravel quartet, the Herbert Howells Piano Quartet and the Fauré Piano Quartet No. 1. The Quatuor Debussy must surely have played these works in concert for their confidence is undeniable. In the second movement of No. 1 they inhale the bustling undisciplined air of woodland and headland – honeyed spinneys, dazzle, spume and ozone. The third movement relents with a more expressionistic line shadowing Schrecker and Van Dieren. Not so long ago I was listening to the Nimbus recordings of two of the Karl Weigl quartets. I noted a kindred nostalgia in this third movement as I did in Weigl’s Fourth and Fifth Quartets. For the finale we are back to Ravel and early Fauré with a hint of Warlock’s instrumental writing for The Curlew. The delicacy and faultless judgement of the Quatuor Debussy (eg at 06.10 in IV) are blessings indeed to Bonnal’s music. The Calvet Quartet toured this work across the world. The wonder is that it has, until now, disappeared from view.

Bonnal had as much of an interest in folksong (specifically that of South West France) as Canteloube had in folksong generally. Folksong enlivens and is as much part of the warp and woof of his music as in the cases of Moeran, Vaughan Williams and Bartók. Its inheritance is woven into the impressionistic skein, the lithely drawn lines and tickling dynamic gradations of all this music. Listen to the range from pp to ff in the fourth movement of the First Quartet.

The Second Quartet is marginally more distant and sepia-toned but the complexity and floating, seethingly mellifluous liquefaction is still there – resolute and winged in both the first and last of the three movements. This is a real discovery denied even the benefit of the Calvet’s international advocacy. Bonnal died six years later in the middle of the Occupation – too late to see the liberation.

The Quatuor Debussy and note-writer Michel le Naour have convinced me that Bonnal’s music deserves much greater currency. Arion have not stinted on translation either. The English version reads with fluency and despatch. Can I just add that Arion’s design values far excel the sad norm established elsewhere in the classical CD field. The choice of the Odile Redon landscape which adorns the cover was a masterful one. As with many French discs the jewel case has gone and in its stead we get a sturdy triple fold card case with the usual mounting rose for the CD and a pocket into which slips the booklet. I can only hector Arion about the lack of more Bonnal on this disc. Let’s have more please. Let’s also have recordings of the two orchestral symphonies, the Symphonie for organ and orchestra (a natural for Guild, surely), the Basque ballet and suite and the Fantaisie Landaise for piano and orchestra.

Bonnal is as desperately neglected as Witkowski whose orchestral music must surely be revived, as must that of Joseph Marx whose Herbstsymphonie and Naturtrilogie I keep haranguing you with, Silvio Lazzari’s opera La Lépreuse, and the five symphonies of Guy-Ropartz.

I urge you strongly to seek out this sheerly magical music.

Rob Barnett

Availability: Arion Music