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alternatively Crotchet

Mel BONIS (1858-1937)
Quatuor No.1 op.69 (1900-05) [24:11]
Soir, matin op.76 [7:34]
Quatuor No.2 op.124 (1927) [24:36]
Mozart Piano Quartet
rec. 31 January-2 February 2006, Fürstliche Reitbahn Bad Arolsen
Experience Classicsonline

Mel Bonis, sometimes written Mel-Bonis, was the original Mel-B. Born Mélanie Bonis, she married an industrialist by the name of Albert Domange who, if wed out of duty rather than love, at least ensured comfort of existence. A romance with the love of her youth, Adémée Hettich, resulted in the birth of a daughter Madeleine, whose existence was kept secret until after Albert’s death, and was only revealed when her son Edouard later planned to marry Madeleine. 

The pseudonym Mel Bonis was of course chosen to blur the feminine origins of the composer’s work, but as far as her musical pedigree was concerned she was the equal of many famous peers and contemporaries. Her talents recognised by César Franck, she was admitted to the Conservatoire in Paris and studied composition under Ernest Guiraud. Among her fellow students were Gabriel Pierné and Claude Debussy. Her studies were unfortunately cut short by her parents, and, as a dutiful mother and wife, she only produced a few songs and piano pieces.

As good as forgotten for the last hundred years or so, Mel Bonis’s work was much admired by her contemporaries, and, listening to the earlier Quatuor No.1 it is easy to understand why. The influence of César Franck is present, but infused with some of the feminine character one finds in Bonis’s contemporary Cécile Chaminade. Not, I hasten to add, that a blind hearing would lead the ignorant ear automatically to conclude that this is the work of a female composer – far from it, but some of the pianistic gestures and romantic sensibilities and gestures are the kind of thing I do associate with a piece like Chaminade’s great Conservatoire test piece, the famous Concertino. Like Franck, Bonis’s first piano quartet explores remote keys through constant modulation, has a rich, fragrant romanticism allied to finely structured musical arguments, and bold melodic lines. This is highly attractive music, and world class in its inventive confidence. 

There is no information about Soir, matin in the booklet notes, but as the title suggests, this is a gentler work than the more abstract Quatuor. Scored for piano, violin and cello, the lighter texture suits the material well, and while the thematic material is fairly evenly distributed the strings tend to lead more – the piano imitating occasionally, but more often providing rippling accompanying harmonies to the heart-on-sleeve melodic lines.

More than twenty years separate Bonis’s op.69 from her Quatuor No.2 op.124. Written when she was nearly 70 years old, she had suffered the deaths of her second husband and youngest son, and had succumbed to deep depressions. She described the work as her musical testament, but it was not performed during her lifetime, and would have been considered hopelessly old-fashioned at a time in which stars such as Stravinsky were all the rage. Indeed, the idioms which pulsed through Bonis’s music at the beginning of the century are similar to those which inhabit her later work, but there is a refinement of the material at work, and the romanticism seems gathered into tighter controls and structures. There are newer syncopated rhythms running through the accompaniment, and while on can never quite see the second moderato movement breaking out into the jazz world of Parisian Martinů, there are little moments which hint at the possibility these influences might have been in the airwaves somewhere. The third movement, lent, has an elegant ebb and flow, with the occasional ‘semi-faux’ note which could be suggestive of Ravel. The final allegro brings back the weightier rippling piano and thematic progressions of Bonis’s elder guides Saint-Saëns and Franck, and those of dedicatee, Gabriel Pierné, who Bonis had met during Franck’s organ classes and whom she held in high esteem. 

I must admit to never having heard of Mel Bonis before hearing this beautifully recorded and performed programme of some of her most important chamber music. This release proves that her contribution to the romantic repertoire of the first half of the last century has been unjustly neglected, and I can hardly imagine a better calling card for her reinstatement.

Dominy Clements


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