Bonis Cpt piano works v1 Toccata TOCC0361

Mel Bonis (1858-1937)
Complete Music for Solo Piano, Volume One
Mengyiyi Chen (piano)
rec: 2021-23, The Margot and Bill Winspear Performance Hall, Murchison Performing Arts Center, University of North Texas, USA
Toccata Classics TOCC0361 [78]

Mélanie Hélène Bonis was born into a non-musical Parisian family in 1858. Fortunately her talent was recognised soon enough for her to enrol in the Paris Conservatoire aged eighteen in 1876 – a contemporary of Bruneau, Chausson, Debussy and Pierné to name but four. I think it important to note that her talent was recognised and appreciated to the point that she won various prizes during her time at the Conservatoire. However, a romantic dalliance led to her parents removing her from the institution and insisting upon a status-improving marriage to a wealthy widower her senior by twenty years. A decade devoted to raising a young family put her composing career on hold so it was not until she was in her early thirties that she could devote serious time to writing. She adopted the gender-neutral Mel Bonis as her professional name simply to avoid the stereotypes that followed being a female composer. Not that that would stop Saint-Saëns writing patronisingly about her Piano Quartet in B-flat major; “I would never have believed that a woman was capable of writing that…”.

But it would be quite wrong to think that Bonis has been completely ignored in print and on recordings. All of the works included in this current recital were published during her lifetime and of the total 77:44 playing time only the Scènes Enfantines, Op 92 [tracks 17-24] are premiere recordings. Toccata Classics have built their reputation on the promotion of music by completely unknown composers, but if this does indeed build into a complete survey of Bonis’ roughly 150 piano works, this new survey will be valuable indeed. As usual with Toccata, the booklet is simply superb. Here, William Melton has written twenty-six pages (in English only) of information both biographical and musical that is fascinating and valuable. He includes an entire list of works for solo piano. Clearly from title alone it is impossible to gauge the scale of the individual works, but it is curious to note that – allowing for collections such as the eight movement Scènes Enfantines mentioned before, there appear to be no larger scale works, no sonatas or obviously substantial pieces. Perhaps key to that is that even at her death at the age of 79 in 1937 her musical spirit was still very much aligned with the idiom of the Belle Époque forty years earlier.

This disc offers twenty-nine individual pieces with the longest Ophélie, Op 165 No 1 just 5:00. Of the remaining 28, 18 are sub-three minutes, so the essence of Bonis’ keyboard art would appear to be the finely-crafted miniature. As mentioned, there have been several other single disc recitals of Bonis’ piano music in recent years – slightly belying the “lost”, “forgotten”, “overlooked” description so often applied to her status – but the significance of this new disc is the promise of a complete survey. Volume One is entrusted to Mengyiyi Chen who plays on a Steinway Model D. I had not heard Chen’s playing before, but she is clearly well-attuned to Bonis’ subtle sound-world and likewise the engineering provides her with an attractive soundstage with clarity and a natural balance suiting this music well. Notable too how consistent the engineering is across seventeen or so months of sessions.

The programme is attractive, although I cannot perceive a through-thread of chronology or publication. This does lead to some contrasts where one piece may reflect a populist/salon gentility with the next more clearly exploring elements of Impressionism or Satie-esque minimalism. The recital opens with the Barcarolle in E-flat major, Op 71. This 1905 work is an excellent choice in that it displays the strengths of composer, performer and production. Unmistakably French in spirit, this does sit on an aesthetic cusp between the harmonic and expressive freedom of Debussy and the poised musical watercolours of Fauré. The liner notes the subtle way in which Bonis visits remote keys and uses whole-tone scales, but in such an undemonstrative way that the listener barely notices the progressive processes at work. Likewise, the following L’escarpolette [the swing] which on one level seems like a simplistic depiction of a swing in gentle waltz-time, yet a musical analysis underlines the compositional sophistication of even such a slight work.

Over a period of several decades, Bonis returned to the idea of writing individual pieces about Les Femmes de Légende. She did not name this collection as such – it was the umbrella title given to the collection of seven pieces when they were published in 2003. Here Chen plays four of the pieces. These are the only Bonis piano works I had previously encountered. Pianist Antonio Oyarzabal included a slightly different group of four in his recital La Muse Oubliée which I reviewed (and enjoyed) here. The four legendary women that Chen plays are Mélisande, Ophélie, Salomé and Phoebée. Melton describes Mélisande as one of Bonis’ most impressionistic works and quotes two other sources who again discuss in some detail the sophistication that Bonis achieves in a very brief 2:40 timeframe. Of course Bonis was not the only composer/creative who visited these characters as sources of musical inspiration. Although not created as a “set” these pieces work very well alongside each other. Salomé is also one of the few works that Bonis wrote in an orchestral version which displays the fact that Bonis had a natural gift for effective orchestration too. Bonis’ Salomé is capricious and playful, with a teasing quality that Chen brings out well. The orchestral version recorded by Benoît Fromanger and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra is interesting to hear, even it is possible to imagine a more sensuously, better recorded version. The final legendary woman performed on this new disc is Phoebée – the moon-sister of the sun Phoebus and is another study in half-lights and harmonic ambiguity. Clearly the remaining three movements in this collection will be included in a later volume – perhaps I am being selfish, they are such fine pieces and work so well together that I am sorry the set has been split. I see from the catalogue they have been recorded before as a complete cycle.

The Romance sans Paroles, Op 56 is apparently one of Bonis’ most popular works. Certainly in its rippling lyricism, it does sound like a latter-day Gallic take on Mendelssohn’s songs without words. Alongside this work, the Mazurka Op 26 and the Meditation Op 33 are works that are clearly from Bonis’ earlier phase, with an attractive directness and emotional simplicity that is well-conveyed by Chen. Apparently, the Op 56 also makes considerable demands on the pianist by dividing the melody between both hands and requiring extended crossed-hands playing. Again, all credit to Chen for making light of these technical hurdles. That said, these earlier ‘salon’ works are less interesting than the later more original pieces. This would equally apply to the group of five works that were published in 1897 as the Cinq pièces musicales. These are just as poised and polished as the later works but somehow more generic. I am not sure that I would have chosen these as the works to complete the disc, as they do not show Bonis’ Art at its most refined and questing. Two other groupings/collections do that to a greater degree; both the 1929 Cinq petites pièces and especially the first recording of the Scènes enfantines, Op 92 published in 1912. Again the Cinq petites pièces are a group of individual pieces albeit with consecutive opus numbers brought together under an umbrella title. These are genuinely ‘small’ pieces – all but one lasting less than two minutes. But again their brevity, the precision and concision of their musical thought is very impressive, with the final Cloches Lointaines [distant bells] a gentle delight.

Possibly my favourite set on this disc are the unrecorded Scènes Enfantines, Op 92 precisely because Bonis pares back on scale, texture, complexity as well as duration (here the longest of the eight pieces is just 2:10) resulting in works of extraordinary precision. None of the works on this disc are emotionally extreme, but in this set there is an element of detachment that foreshadows the neo-classicism of decades hence. But at the same time there is an affectionate humour and sly wit that prevents these from being in any way dry exercises. Another notable feature of this set – conceived and presented as such – is the variety of expression, from the graceful warmth of Valse lente and Bébé s’endort to the playfulness of Cache-cache and Frère Jacques. This set underlines how masterful Bonis was in this style of composition. Without any caveats of time or place or gender, this is simply supremely skilled writing.

Given the sheer quantity of music listed here for solo piano, I imagine this survey will be running to five or six volumes. Assuming that to be the case, this first volume is an auspicious debut with music, performer and composer all emerging from it with their reputations enhanced. This is a generously-filled disc – given Bonis’ fairly consistent style in this music, I think it is possibly a disc best sampled and savoured in several listenings rather than straight through. A richly rewarding survey by any measure.

Nick Barnard

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Barcarolle in E-flat major, Op 71 (1905)
L’escarpolette, Op 52 (publ. 1901)
Les Femmes de Légende: No 1 Mélisande, Op 109 (1922); No 3 Ophélie, Op 165 No 1 (1909); No 6 Salomé, Op 100 No 1 (publ. 1909); No 5 Phoebée, Op 30 (publ. 1909)
Romance sans Paroles, Op 56 (publ. 1905)
Mazurka, Op 26 (publ. 1896)
Il pleut! Op 102 (publ. 1913)
Meditation, Op 33 No 1 (publ. 1905)
Cinq petites pièces (publ. 1929)
Scènes enfantines, Op 92 (publ. 1912)
Cinq pièces musicales (publ. 1897)