“Complete Music for Solo Piano, Volume One”
Mel Bonis: Barcarolle in E‑Flat major, opus 71 – L’Escarpolette, opus 52 – Femmes de légende – Romance sans paroles, opus 56 – Mazurka, opus 26 – Il pleut !, opus 102 – Méditation, opus 33 – Cinq petites pièces, opp. 117‑121 – Scènes enfantines, opus 92 – Cinq pièces musicales
Gabriel Fauré: Clair de lune, opus 46 n° 2 (trans. Bonis)
Mengyiyi Chen (pianist)
Recording: The Margot and Bill Winspear Performance Hall of Murchison Performing Arts Center at the College of Music, University of North Texas, Denton (December 8, 2021, July 22, 2022 and April 26, 2023) – 77’44
Toccata Classics TOCC0361 – Booklet in English
The name Mel Bonis (1858-1937) is not exactly a household word, even among those whose households have pianos. Bonis was a French composer and pianist whose conspicuous musical talent was recognized at an early age, and who went on to study with César Franck and Auguste Bazille. Bonis was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire where classmates included Chausson, Debussy and Gabriel Pierné. Despite winning first prize in harmony in 1880 after taking second prize in both harmony and accompaniment the previous year, Bonis was forced to leave the conservatory over the objections of director August Thomas and ordered to follow a conventional life as dictated by inflexible parents.
Bonis composed some 300 compositions, mostly for piano or chamber ensembles, and enjoyed some success as a musical creator. The composer had to swim against the current to achieve success, a feat made more difficult by one looming disadvantage. She had been born a woman.
Melanie “Mel” Bonis is one of a growing number of female composers to emerge from the shadows of the past in recent years. Like other women before her, as well as her contemporaries, talent alone was insufficient to ensure for her a place of distinction in the musical universe. In spite of obstacles, which included being coerced to marry a wealthy businessman 22 years her senior with five children from previous marriages, Bonis found opportunities to achieve her dreams and provide a body of work to delight listeners for years to come.
And delightful it is. Toccata Classics has released the first volume of Mel Bonis’s complete piano music, performed by Mengyiyi Chen, a talented young pianist with a lyrical touch. While Bonis composed in many forms, including works for orchestra, chorus and small groups, this collection of more than 77 minutes of piano works from throughout her life demonstrates the range and scope of her musical vision. Influences abound (Chabrier comes to mind), but throughout, there runs a vein of originality and what I would call cheeky determination, through which she maintained communion with the muse even while caring for five step‑children and three children born within her marriage. Later, she had an illegitimate child with the love of her life, a former fellow student who became a musician and publisher.
The album begins with the Barcarolle in E‑flat major, published in 1906. This work has a rhapsodic quality, with gentle rocking rhythms and soaring high notes. The work sparkles with hints of Impressionism as well as the sweep of late Romanticism. Chen’s playing in this work and throughout the album explores and reveals layers of feeling and meaning, sweeping the listener up in the spirit of the piece. One very small criticism: Bonis ends this and several of the selections on this album conventionally, with a boring cadence. I found this a bit of a let‑down, and hope that future performers feel empowered to breathe originality into the endings through phrasing and rubato. Bonis’s work is strong enough to withstand a little discreet tinkering.
Other high points in the album include four of the seven musical portraits of legendary women, such as Ophelia and Salome, that Bonis created throughout her career. In the spirit of Debussy and Liszt, Bonis conjures feelings associated with water and fluidity in her depictions of Mélisande and Ophelia. These aqueous tracks are intoxicating, shaded in ethereal beauty. In contrast, the composer offers an energetic Salomé who almost dances herself to death, dropping to the floor in a predictable final chord.
One of the most mesmerizing aspects of this collection is the range of the composer’s perspective. Whether tone-painting, as in the Femmes de légende or taking one’s breath away with a Mazurka full of unexpected modulations, Bonis displays an imaginative maturity throughout these selections that makes one yearn for future recordings. Chen’s interpretations are not only virtuosic and well balanced, but also full of enthusiasm for the composer: a real pleasure to hear.
The album concludes with two lesser works which are still worth a listen: Eight Scènes enfantines (scenes from childhood) and Cinq piéces musicales, published in 1897 and containing some of the composer’s youthful creations, including a whimsical Minuet.
Thank you, Toccata Classics, for this illuminating and enjoyable collection.