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Joseph Jongen (1873-1953)
Messe en l’honneur du Saint-Sacrement Op.130 (1945-1948) [34:06]
Deus Abraham Motet pour une messe de marriage W150 (1909) [3:21]
Pie Jesu No.1 of Deux Motets W71 (1895) [2:49]
Quid sum miser? No.1 of Trois Motets W99 (1899) [4:43]
Flor Peeters (1903-1986)
Missa Festiva Op.62 for choir and organ (1947) [27:31]
Thomas Gould (violin); Paul Provost (organ)
London City Brass
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/David Hill
rec. St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 10-12 July 2006
HYPERION CDA67603 [72:50]

Like his fellow countryman Hercule Poirot, Joseph Jongen is often thought of as a Frenchman, however he was a Belgian.  Jongen was born in Liège on 14 December 1873 and lived and worked in that country until his death in 1953.
He is probably best known to most music-lovers as an organ composer. Yet a brief look at his catalogue reveals a huge variety of works – most of which await discovery by the majority of listeners. Jongen wrote some 240 works; although a strong critical mind has caused nearly half of them to be withdrawn by the composer. Interestingly there are a considerable number of orchestral works that include a Piano Concerto and a number of impressionistic tone poems.
I am not sure how Madame Valentine Jongen né Ziane, must have felt on hearing the Deus Abraham sung at her/their Nuptial Mass. Jongen had met her at the Libre esthétique in Brussels: she was a pianist. He proposed and the couple were married in 1909.  Joseph put together this short ‘motet’ for solo tenor, violin and organ.  Certainly she would realise what her husband expected – ‘Your wife is like a fruitful vine on the walls of your house, your children are the buds of olives on your table.’ Not an unpleasant piece, but schmaltzy: especially with the un–liturgical violin obbligato. But perhaps the occasion demanded it?
Classic FM listeners will know at least two examples of Pie Jesu – the one from Fauré, and the other from the Andrew Lloyd-Webber confection. Jongen’s version will never reach the Top Hundred Classics – but it certainly deserves to be heard. It is a particularly beautiful and meditative setting, as the words require. On this disc, it is excerpted from the composer’s Requiem Mass of 1895. 
With the Quid sum Miser? we are back to the fiddle accompanying the bass soloist. This just does not ‘do’ for me. Of course there is a strong tradition of all kinds of musical instruments being used in church. Think of the ‘musician’s gallery’ that Thomas Hardy recalled. And some churches even use electric guitars!  But the solo violin to my ear is the least liturgical of instruments. If anything, it makes the music seem almost operatic. The words of the motet begin – “What then shall I say, wretch that I am …” Not perhaps the most flamboyant of texts. Again this is not a bad piece – just one that does not quite deliver the theological meaning in the best musical manner.
The Mass in honour of the Holy Sacrament was written in thanksgiving for the release of his nephew from a German concentration camp and also in memory of the composer’s brother Alphonse, who died after a complex operation.
I am not convinced by the use of the brass band in this work. It is fair to say that it adds a considerable strength to the music – yet somehow set against Jongen’s the superb part-writing, it often overpowers and acts as a distraction. It is as if Walton were to add brass flourishes to Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor: it is difficult to decide if it helps or hinders the music. To be fair, there are many gorgeous moments when the brass points up the text – either from the gentle side or from the brash facet of its tone.
I believe that if an orchestral arrangement of the Mass was made – akin to that of the great Duruflé Requiem it would be impressive: the balance between brass, choir, organ and liturgical needs does not seem quite right.
Furthermore this is not a liturgical mass – I cannot imagine the music being sung in church, even for a special occasion. It is quite definitely a concert work. Of course there is no problem with that – there are many masses that are manifestly unsuitable for Sunday by Sunday use.
It is difficult to know whether this is a great work. Brass notwithstanding, there is a good balance of the parts, the part writing is effective, the sound is impressive and often moving. In fact there are some truly gorgeous passages in this work However I cannot imagine it ever becoming popular like the Fauré or the Duruflé Requiems. It will remain, like the rest of Jongen’s music very much the preserve of a few cognoscenti.
The Flor Peeter’s Missa Festiva is quite a different work to Jongen’s even although they were composed around the same time. For one thing, Peeters uses only the organ to support the choir. For another, he is more influenced by plainsong and folk music than is apparent in Jongen. The sound-world is much less romantic, more Spartan and perhaps even more bitter-sweet than that of Jongen. We hear plainsong and even ‘organum’ on a number of occasions during this work which adds considerably to its almost timeless impact on the listener.
However, the Missa Festiva is well balanced and surprisingly restrained for a work that was manifestly written for a ‘Festival’ occasion. There are many lovely moments that both impress and move.
Peeters is noted for his organ music – although there are a considerable number of vocal works in his catalogue. He spent much of his student years studying Gregorian chant. In addition he was enthusiastic about the Flemish School of Polyphony that included such great composers as Dufay, Ockeghem and Josquin. There are also nods to neo-classicism and twentieth century techniques such as polyrhythm and polytonality. Peeters was an eclectic composer who was firmly rooted in his country’s musical tradition.
The programme note suggests that Peeters’ “great talent nowhere approached the compositional genius of Jongen”. However listening to these two masses ‘back to back’ reveals a well written and finely balanced work that is wholly consistent with itself.  The Missa Festiva is a fine work that, in my opinion has the aesthetic edge over the ‘greater’ Mass by Jongen. The listener must decide for himself or herself.
The music sounds great in this recording – the ‘cathedral’ effect is impressive. The performance of this music is first class, notwithstanding the fact that I do not have another recording to compare them with.
This is a worthy CD that all lovers of ‘ecclesiastical’ music will want in their collection. In spite of my reservations about the shorter Jongen pieces this release presents two fine works by two great, but relatively unknown Belgian composers.
John France


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