Mel Bonis (1858-1937)
Entre Soir et Matin
Soir for Piano Trio Op.194
Suite pour violon et piano Op.114 (1926)
Trois pièces pour violon et piano (1910)
Suite Orientale Op.48 for piano trio (1900)
Suite for flute, violin and piano Op.59 (1903)
Violin Sonata in F sharp minor Op.112 (ca. 1922)
Sérénade Op.46 pour violon et piano (1899)
Soir-Matin for piano trio Op.76 (1907)
Sandrine Cantoreggi (violin), Sheila Arnold (fortepiano), Michael Faust (flute), Gustav Rivinius (cello)
rec. 2023, Immanuelkirche, Wuppertal, Germany
CAvi-music 8553534 [2 CDs: 88]

What a difference a few years make.  December 2019 was the last time I reviewed Mel Bonis’s Suite pour violon et piano Op.114 where it formed part of an excellent recital titled Violon au féminin – Compositrices françaises performed by Sara Chenal (violin) and Jean-Pierre Ferey (piano).  This represented the first time I had heard on disc music by this composer.  Interesting to re-read that old review and see that amongst a fine roster of composers Bonis (and Lili Boulanger) stood out.  Dial forward to today and barely a month goes by without the new releases list including a disc featuring Bonis’s music either in part or full.  One element is unchanged – the quality of the music as evidenced by this well-planned two disc recital centred on her music for violin and piano.  The two central performers’ Sandrine Cantoreggi on violin and Sheila Arnold on piano contribute the liner note too and there they characterise this collection as recreating “the intimate atmosphere of a musical soireé”.  By including contributions from flautist Michael Faust and cellist Gustav Rivinius there is an appealing sense of friendship and collaboration in the music-making.  On a simple practical level too, the tonal variety these other two instruments bring adds an attractive range of style and expression to the works offered.

Clearly this is something of a passion project for the two central players as they own the copyright for these performances with the set marked as being licensed to Deutsche Grammophon even though this release is on the Avi label.  In preparing for this recital Cantoreggi and Arnold have had access to musical manuscripts and writings by the composer.  Bonis’s biographical background is becoming better known but it bears some repetition simply because of the impact this had on the when and why of the music she wrote.  Here I am quoting from another review I wrote recently welcoming Volume 1 of a promised series of her complete piano music; “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 widow 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.”  Here is not the place for an extended biographical sketch but you imagine it will not be long before some enterprising writer sees the potential for a play or film based on her life – a Mel-o-drama perhaps[?]

As is completely usual, the more music you hear by any composer the greater sense you have of their compositional arc and range.  A consistent feature of Bonis’s work is the real craft at work.  There is an interesting contradiction at work too.  This is elegant, always beautiful music that has that unmistakeably Gallic voice where emotion is obliquely referenced rather than directly addressed.  Yet in letters and her own writing Bonis appears to be a woman of considerable and dynamic passions.  As the liner rather neatly says; “Passions both religious and earthly, consumed her and, at the same time, brought her profound joy”.  Elsewhere Bonis is quoted as saying; “Music speaks to me about what I want, but then withholds it.  It kindles my desire and makes me feel the futility of everything….it’s such a horrible longing”.  You do not have to be much of an amateur psychologist to read into these words a life-long conflict between the spiritual bonds of her strongly held Catholic faith and the earthly reality of her life where she bore a child out of wed-lock with the man who was her greatest love that she couldn’t marry.

A measure of Bonis’s musical reappraisal is that only one brief work in this eighty seven minute recital is receiving a premiere recording.  However apart from the aforementioned Suite and the Sérénade Op.46 which appears in that same earlier disc/review this is new music to me.  Before considering the music a word about the recording and playing.  The production/engineering is very good with an attractive fairly close but natural balance between the instruments in any given combination.  The integration of the players and the sense of collective music-making is clear.  Individually the playing is fine; I liked Faust’s mellow warmed-toned flute playing and Rivinius’s expressive cello.  Interestingly Arnold plays on a 1871 Julius Blüthner fortepiano that sounds very fine.  It has been tuned to A = 438Hz but curiously this sounds identical pitch-wise to the instrument used by Ferey on the earlier recital.  Sandrine Cantoreggi plays well with evident insight and commitment.  By the most demanding of measures her playing is not as finessed or elegant as that by Sara Chenal.  Chenal has just a fraction greater clarity in her attack and articulation that suits this style of music very well.  Not that Cantoreggi is anything but very good, just not as good.

Bonis seems to prefer music written on a relatively small scale.  Apart from the twenty-three minute/four movement Violin Sonata in F sharp minor all of the works here are more modest in duration.   There is a preference for gathering contrasting movements together in suites or collections.  Of the sixteen movements recorded here (excluding the sonata) only two break the five minute barrier with twelve lasting four minutes or less.  Bonis’s goal is to explore a mood or musical atmosphere in a focussed manner and then move onto a different often contrasting mood.  Although she lived until 1937, the latter years of her life were shadowed by severe arthritis and although she did compose right until her death the latest work offered here is that same Op.114 Suite that so impressed me before.  And so it does again here – alongside the Op.112 Sonata this is Bonis at her most harmonically experimental (a relative term to be sure) and formally interesting.  Over three hundred works are testament to her prodigiously fertile musical imagination although these appear to develop and expand upon a style and approach that was formed around the turn of the 19th Century.  On the evidence of this recital and the recent piano disc Bonis’s musical voice does not radically change in the quarter century from 1900.  The later works are more harmonically and indeed emotionally ambiguous.  The central Sous la ramée from the Op.114 seems like a key piece in several ways.  Not only is it the longest single movement in the entire recital [8:33] but also it is fascinatingly elusive both in musical and expressive terms.  The title literally translates as under the leafy branches of a tree so implying a languid “après-midi” but at the same time it is a possible reference to a Verlaine poem which Fauré set in his La Bonne Chanson.  For me this movement continues to embody the very best of Bonis – passionately elusive.

Bonis’s earlier music is perhaps more linear, less emotionally complex.  For sure the craft is there but the emotion is perhaps a little more obvious with an element of salon sentiment in both the harmony and melody.  Not that I mean that as a criticism.  So the three movement Suite Orientale Op.48 for piano trio or indeed the Suite for flute, violin and piano Op.59 clearly belong earlier in Bonis’s development as a composer.  Both works tap into the turn of the century European fascination for the “exotic” East.  So the central movement of the Suite Orientale is a rather tame Danse d’Almées [Dance of the Egyptian Girls]in a rather undigested ‘simple’ sub-oriental style.  Bonis wrote little original orchestral music – this dance appears on the collection of her orchestral music played by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.  As an aside – the more I hear that disc the more I am certain we need a top notch idiomatic recording of that music – this sounds too much like a read/record play through session.   Returning to this new set; the later flute trio and even more so the slow movement of the sonata have digested the influences and implications of non-European scales and harmonies to far more interesting effect.  According to the liner the melody for this Lento [CD2 track 6] was sourced by Bonis from a collection published by one of her conservatoire teachers Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray.  According to the Wikipedia entry Bourgault-Ducoudray was one of the first composers to directly embrace the musical possibilities of “world music” with his influence most strikingly impacting Debussy.  Bonis’s version is initially a fairly ‘straight’ treatment of the melody found in Bourgault-Ducoudray’s book – No.1 of 30 Mélodies populaires de Grèce et d’Orient that can be viewed on IMSLP.  The liner mentions it being a Greek theme but the published song entry is listed as being from Smyrna – a part of Ancient Greece but now in Turkey.  There is a pentatonic shape to the melody that places it unmistakably closer to the Middle East than Greece.  Interestingly this collection was published as long ago as 1877 so while Bonis was studying but literal decades before she wrote her sonata.  There is some suggestion that at least a first version of this Sonata might have originated some years earlier not long after the death of Bourgault-Ducoudray.

As a whole the Sonata is a highlight of this collection not just because it is more exploratory than some of the earlier – albeit charming – music.  Although Bonis wrote a very substantial amount of music very little of it is on an extended canvas except for three instrumental sonatas and two piano quartets.  But the evidence of this sonata is that clearly Bonis did possess the compositional rigour to write effectively on a larger scale.  Perhaps her reason for not doing so was pragmatic – the larger the work, the less likely it would be performed.  The sonata is in four movements with a capricious Presto an effective contrast to the brooding Lento.  The closing Con moto is again quite playful in mood with constantly changing bar lengths giving the music an unpredictable and engaging character but as an example of the skilled composing process it is hard for the listener to immediately realise that the main theme of this closing movement is indeed the Symrnan lento transformed.  As often happens even in movements or sections of a faster basic tempo Bonis places a central panel of strongly contrasting nostalgic lyricism.  Indeed there is a strong sense that her slower music has a linear vocal quality.  Looking at her catalogue I am surprised she did not write more than the thirty five melodies listed on her Wikipedia page.

Placed immediately after the sonata is another of what might be termed the “Salon” Bonis works – Sérénade Op.46 (1899) – mislisted in the booklet track list as 1910 but correct in the main text.  By now your ear tells you this is “early” Bonis – attractive but slight.  The Trois pièces for violin and piano [CD1 tracks 5-7] are from 1910 and do musically sit between the two stools of the 1890 Salon pieces and the more exploratory works of the 1920’s.  Again there is a song-like quality to their sustained melodies well-projected here by Cantoreggi but again direct comparison to Chenal who also plays the Sérénade Op.46 again reveals in the latter a player with a more intuitive rhythmic freedom and greater expressive range. 

Cantoreggi – who is very well accompanied throughout by Arnold on the lovely Blüthner fortepiano – is genuinely very good and clearly dedicated to this project – somehow Chenal ‘feels’ more authentically Gallic in her playing.  The disc is completed by the pair of most familiar Bonis works that give the set its title; Soir-Matin for piano trio.  The disc opened with another trio Soir which the liner suggests Bonis wrote as an alternative to the Op.76 work.  Over richly harmonised piano passage-work the violin and cello intertwine quite beautifully – perhaps the ultimate expression of Bonis’s “salon” style.

With greater familiarity across a range of music it is clear that Bonis knew where her strengths lay – and also where her musical preferences resided.  She is not the first or last composer to work within a fairly closely defined musical range.  Neither is she the first composer to write in a style that transforms from novel to conservative within a couple of decades.  But as with all those other composers neither of those factors diminish the essential quality and effectiveness of the music she wrote.  Although in some regards limited, the later compositions contain layers of deeper musical and non-musical meaning that place them alongside the work of more famous composers. 

The catalogue now features quite a few mixed recitals featuring different elements of Bonis’s output.  This new set strikes me as one of the most extensive and well-planned so far giving the listener an attractively mixed programme of her work within the violin and piano/piano trio genre.  The booklet in English and French only underlines the care and thought that has gone into this production.

Nick Barnard

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