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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.
Latin texts and English translations
HYPERION CDA67603 [72:50]

I guess that for many music-lovers, Belgian music begins and ends with César Franck. However, his compatriots, Joseph Jongen and Flor Peeters, though not so celebrated, were far from insubstantial figures.
Like Franck, Jongen was born in Liège, where he studied at the Conservatoire. He pursued a teaching career for much of his life and was on the staff at the Brussels Conservatoire for many years, retiring as its Director in 1939. Peeters was also an academic, teaching first in Malines and later, from 1952, serving as Director of the Antwerp Conservatoire. Unlike Jongen he was also a cathedral organist, in Malines. Perhaps that distinction between the two goes some way towards explaining why Jongen’s Messe en l’honneur du Saint-Sacrement is more of a concert work than is Peeters’ Missa Festiva.
The Jongen setting was composed to celebrate the seven-hundredth anniversary of the institution of the Corpus Christi festival at St-Martin, Liège. It was first performed in that city’s cathedral in 1946, although the Credo was only added to the setting two years later. I’d not heard the piece before but it impressed me. The involvement of a brass group adds colour and touches of splendour to the accompaniment. However, although the use of the brass at climaxes lends an extra majesty I found that Jongen uses them even more imaginatively in quieter passages. This is true, for example, in the Kyrie, which is a dignified movement in a restrained style.
In the Gloria the brass contribute some exciting sonorities in the louder passages. The writing for choir is both assured and interesting and the organ, splendidly played by Paul Provost, is certainly not overshadowed by the presence of the brass group. The Credo is another fine movement. I was impressed by the note of quiet awe at ‘Et incarnatus est’ after which the ‘Crucifixus’ is powerful and the ‘Et Resurrexit’ surges forward with great vitality.
John Scott Whiteley opines in his excellent notes that the scale of the Sanctus and Benedictus movements make it clear that this is a Mass setting intended, primarily, for concert use. I liked the florid choral passages and brass fanfares at the start of what is often an exuberant setting of the Sanctus. The Benedictus, which is quiet and gently flowing, uses a solo quartet as well as the choir. The quartet reappears briefly in the Agnus Dei, a mainly pacific setting which includes reminiscences of music from previous movements. John Scott Whiteley comments that this movement exhibits “a fastidious lyricism and a restrained intensity”. I agree and, indeed, that’s a description that could apply to much of the music in this Mass.
The Peeters setting, one of nine Masses that he composed, is very clearly a liturgical work. In fact one thing that struck me was that in general the accompaniment – for organ only – is less prominent, playing a more simply supportive role than in the Jongen. For Peeters it’s the voices that carry the main burden of the argument. The Kyrie is impassioned and intense, though it ends quietly. The setting of the Gloria is more compact than in Jongen’s Mass.
As was the case with the Jongen, I was particularly impressed, in the Credo, with the section beginning at ‘Et incarnatus est’. That passage is set for unaccompanied voices. The ‘Crucifixus’ is tense and powerful and then ‘Et Resurrexit’ is marvellously triumphant. The section that follows sounds like a real profession of faith and the movement ends with a soaring and affirmative Amen. This is fine stuff.
The compact Sanctus is a luminous setting, with lovely ‘Hosannas.’ The gentle Benedictus ends with a brief, joyful Hosanna. The Agnus Dei reprises some material from the Kyrie. The second ‘Agnus’ is urgent and taut and the movement ends with a serenely beautiful ‘Dona nobis pacem’.
Usually when a disc includes a couple of shorter pieces beside one or more larger works I’m wary of giving the impression that the shorter pieces are mere ‘fillers’. However, I’m afraid that on this occasion that’s precisely the case. The three small pieces by Jongen are, frankly, of only minor interest. The setting of Deus Abraham was written for and performed at Jongen’s own wedding. It’s pleasant enough but slight and the violin part, though well played here, lends a rather cloying sweetness to the proceedings. That’s even more the case in Quid sum miser? where the combination of bass solo, violin and organ is most odd. I don’t feel that it really works all that well and, in any case, the music itself is somewhat undistinguished. The remaining offering is a setting for treble solo and organ of Pie Jesu. This little piece sounds rather insipid when one calls to mind the settings by Fauré and Duruflé.
The performances on this disc are, without exception, first rate. The St. John’s choir produces a bright, forward sound and although this music cannot have been exactly core repertoire for them they sing it confidently. I’ve already mentioned the fine contribution of Paul Provost. London Brass also play a distinguished part in the proceedings. David Hill has clearly trained the choir very well indeed – as one would expect – and his spirited and sympathetic direction of the choir makes one regret that his tenure at St John’s has been so brief. 
I doubt that either of these Mass settings will ever establish themselves as core repertoire pieces but I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to get to know them, and in such fine performances, through this typically enterprising Hyperion release.

John Quinn
see also review by John France


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