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Joseph JONGEN (1873 – 1953)
Deux mélodies Op.25 (1902)
Deux mélodies Op.45 (1914)
Cinq mélodies Op.57 (1917/8)
Triptyque pour orchestre Op.103 (1937)
Mariette Kemmer (soprano); Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo; Pierre Bartholomée
Recorded: Auditorium Rainier III, Monte-Carlo, December 2002 and January 2003
CYPRES CYP 1635 [65:15]
Though he wrote a good deal of vocal music, including several large-scale choral pieces such as the majestic Mass Op.130 (1945 – soloists, chorus, organ and brass), his prize-winning cantata Comala Op.14 (1897 – soloists, chorus and orchestra, which will soon be available on disc) as well as several choral works with or without accompaniment, Jongen only composed thirty songs (eight of them are unpublished and possibly withdrawn by the composer) of which the present release offers a generous, if incomplete selection. (Deux mélodies Op.29 of 1906, Les pauvres Op.64 of 1919 on a poem by Verhaeren and Bal des fleurs Op.25 No.4 have not been included.) Most of his songs, originally for voice and piano, have been orchestrated by the composer, who also made most of them available in a chamber version (voice, piano and string quartet). However, though not particularly abundant, Jongen’s songs are far from negligible and are particularly attractive in their orchestral guise.

The earlier songs here, Deux mélodies Op.25 of 1902 and Deux mélodies Op.45 of 1914, are still redolent of, say, Fauré or Duparc, and none the worse for that. The original Op.25 cycle consists of four songs. Three of them were orchestrated in 1922 and two are heard here (Après un rêve on a poem by Romain Bussine and Chanson roumaine on a text by Hélène Vacaresco). Though still fairly traditional, these songs are as beautifully written as anything else in his output. Deux mélodies Op.45 (1914, orchestrated 1922) set a fine symbolic poem by Franz Hellens (Les cadrans) and a poem by Jules Delacre (Que dans les cieux). They are quite similar to the earlier songs, although the much finer literary quality of the texts (especially that by Hellens conjuring-up some mysterious visions) drew a superb musical response on Jongen’s part.

However, Cinq mélodies Op.57, completed in 1917-1918, is one of Jongen’s crowning achievements and a real masterpiece. Originally, Jongen planned to set Hellens’ war poems Les fêtes rouges, but eventually did not set the fourth poem. Hellens’ poems, for all their Christian symbolism, express a dark, sometimes ironic vision of war’s atrocities and are conspicuously free of any jingoism. Rather, the harsh realities of war depicted in L’Epiphanie des exilés (symbolised as the three Magi), still more forcefully in Le carnaval des tranchées in which the soldier’s bride (i.e. Death) is described as "pure and gloriously beautiful" and finally in Langues de feu (in which the apostles are called upon to go and preach ‘just hatred’), are echoed by some powerfully impressive, at times grotesque, always gripping music. The cycle is completed by two songs of a more tender, gentle character offsetting the tension of the preceding songs and thus providing this impressive cycle with an appeased, though by no means serene conclusion.

Triptyque pour orchestre Op.103 is a much later piece completed in 1937. To some extent, this substantial work pays a direct and sincere homage to Debussy and Ravel, whom Jongen admired and who were among his models. At times, the homage goes as far as alluding to the French composers’ music or even briefly quoting from it. Jongen, however, remains his own self, and the music is vintage Jongen throughout. The opening movement moves along quietly, dreamily, almost seamlessly so. The central Scherzo is Jongen in his outdoor mood, skipping along with infectious energy and briefly alluding to Debussy’s Fêtes. The final movement reverts to the contemplative mood of the opening one. It opens mysteriously, redolent of the dawn section from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, but the music then goes on in Jongen’s own (musical) terms. This much neglected work is one of Jongen’s finest, most colourful and superbly crafted pieces in which he effortlessly displays his remarkable orchestral mastery. I had never heard this piece before, but I am now convinced that it is a major, unjustly neglected work.

Excellent performances and recordings that serve the music well. Mariette Kemmer sings beautifully throughout and gets a superb support from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo that plays this much unfamiliar music most lovingly and convincingly. CYPRES have already put us much in their debt for several outstanding discs of Jongen’s music. There is much to enjoy in this most welcome release that I warmly recommend. My record of the month anyway.

Hubert Culot



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