To be able to forget music one needs to have
known it in the first instance. I suspect I am not alone in failing
this test by having heard none of them before. I knew of the existence
of the York Bowen Sonata, of which there have been several recordings,
but the others were wholly unknown to me; so, for me at least,
unknown rather than forgotten pearls. Two were however very welcome
novelties and well worth revival.
Mélanie Bonis studied with Guiraud and Franck at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 1870s but her parents insisted on her leaving as they considered that music was an unsuitable profession for a woman. To avoid this kind of prejudice she later used the name Mel Bonis for her compositions. She had a hectic private life in which she was both the apparently respectable wife of a man who disliked music and the lover of the poet whose texts she set and whose illegitimate daughter she had and concealed. Despite this she continued to compose and managed to obtain performances from many of the best musicians of the day. In many ways she can be seen as a less respectable but equally talented French parallel to the English composer Alice Mary Smith. Mel Bonis’ Flute Sonata is in four movements, with a short but delightful Scherzo second and a lengthy and very affecting slow movement third. It is however the first movement that chiefly sticks in the memory with its lyrical charm and subtle harmonic changes. The booklet refers to the Sonata as being reminiscent of Franck and Philippe Gaubert. I certainly heard pre-echoes of the latter but little of the former. Overall it is a real discovery and it would be good to hear more of her large output.
John Francis Barnett was a very different character. The nephew of the John Barnett who wrote The Mountain Sylph
he wrote much choral music, including The Raising of Lazarus
and a setting of Paradise and the Peri
but was best known as a teacher.
His Grand Sonata was published in 1883 but looks backwards to the idiom of Mendelssohn and Schumann. It has nonetheless real character of its own, with memorable themes, idiomatic writing for both instruments and real energy. Like the Bonis it makes me want to hear more music by this composer.
Max Meyer-Obersleben was a pupil of Liszt and later a Kapellmeister in Würzburg. As the title might suggest, his Fantasie-Sonate is a work of diverse character, its three movements including a Serenade and a Bacchanale. Whilst it is certainly expertly written I found a serious lack of any individual character overall, and an almost total lack of anything memorable.
York Bowen’s status has risen fast in recent years, and many musicians and critics whom I respect have hailed the qualities of his music but I regret so far to having failed to understand this view. I can see the music’s technical expertise and the expertise needed to play it, but I find myself wholly outside what sounds to me like a pallid version of Rachmaninov. That applies to this Sonata too, although the more lyrical central movement does have that distinctive character which I find lacking elsewhere. All critics have blind spots and this is mine. I am glad to have had the chance to make the work’s acquaintance but for me it is a pearl cast before swine.
All I have written so far has been about the music, and it is to the credit of Michel Moragues and Kyoko Nojima that they characterise each work so distinctly. Their cultivated tone and phrasing gives pleasure even at moments where the music itself is of more limited interest. The recording is well, if closely, balanced and the somewhat quirky notes (in French and English) are interesting if hard to read being printed over photographs. All in all, an enterprising, well filled and successful disc – two genuine unknown pearls out of four pieces is a good score!