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Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953)
Six Mélodies, Op.25 [20:59]
Sept Mélodies d’Armand Silvestre [20:58]
Six Mélodies de maturité [18:41]
Lès Målureûs [4:46]
Sarah Defrise (soprano)
Craig White (piano)
rec. 2019, Flagey, Brussels

It is interesting to observe that the majority of 19th century Belgian composers whose names have spread internationally – Fétis, Bériot, Vieuxtemps, Franck, Lemmens, Callaerts, Ysaÿe and Jongen - were first and foremost organists or violinists, and in most cases their posthumous reputations rest on the music they wrote for their instrument. César Franck, of course, has long since emerged from the shadowy confines of the organ world to be accepted as a major composer in his own right, and the same rehabilitation (if we can call it that) seems to be underway for Joseph Jongen. Born in Liège and admitted to the city’s conservatoire at the age of seven, he was a remarkably gifted musician, winning top prizes in Fugue, Piano and Organ, awarded the Belgian Prix de Rome and producing his first serious composition sat the age of 13. He was a prolific composer, the website of the Belgian Centre for Music Documentation (Cebedem) listing 548 individual compositions. Yet until very recently he was known only for a handful of organ works (notably the magnificent Sonata Eroica and the Symphonie concertante for organ and orchestra). In recent years, however, his chamber works have begun to appear in the record catalogues, invariably eliciting surprise from my fellow-reviewers often uneasy with the idea that an organist can also be quite an imaginative and sensitive composer for other media, and now we have the first in series of discs intended to put on record Jongen’s complete output of songs.

The starting point of this disc appears to have been the discovery by Sarah Defrise in 2016 (a decade after the Cebedem list was published) of over 20 previously unpublished songs, bringing the total tally of known songs by Jongen up to 55, all composed between 1890 and 1948. In her own booklet note (a beautifully written, deeply informative and highly illuminating essay), Defrise suggests that Jongen himself rarely mentioned his songs, “maybe because he considered them a lesser genre”. I would certainly not suggest that Ms Defrise is wrong, but on the evidence of what she presents to us on disc, Jongen’s songs are invariably of the highest order, some of them greatly inspired and many inhabiting a world of part-introspection, part-atmosphere and part impressionism which sets them on a level with the songs of his French contemporaries Fauré and Debussy. Defrise herself identifies three distinct phases in Jongen’s musical development as seen through the songs; “French Romanticism” in those written before 1900, “Post-Wagnerism and Debussyism” for songs up to the outbreak of the First World War and “Jongerian Synthetism” for his later songs.

Songs from that first period on this disc include the Sept mélodies d’Armand Silvestre which was Jongen’s first actual song cycle composed in 1892. The musical language here is redolent of Duparc, with its sensuous lyricism and rich harmonic palette, but Defrise’s immensely sensitive shaping of the long-drawn mélodies lines and Craig White’s beautifully poised delivery of the delightfully detailed piano accompaniments, ensures that the sheer musical quality of these songs is presented in a way which makes them stand out proudly as examples of a young but highly individual voice. A particular delight here is the setting of Les étoiles effarouchées, the piano writing endearingly evocative of the sparkling of a myriad stars.

The Six mélodies published in 1902 as his Op.25 include one of the same texts – Après un rêve – famously set by Fauré. But while we can safely assume that Jongen knew of the Frenchman’s setting, this is very much in a different league, often disturbed and animated, and constantly switching between moments of passion and those exuding grace and calm. The songs of this cycle are probably the only Jongen songs which have found some kind of foothold in the repertory, but the first – Lys–Chrysanthèmes – had been thought to be lost; here it is recorded for the first time. Defrise describes it as “frosty” and “with no melodic theme to speak of”, yet this performance exudes warmth and a strong lyrical character, even if, once it’s over, you find you can’t remember a single melodic line from it; Jongen was, if nothing else at this time, a composer for whom atmosphere and character were all important. In the third song – Ferveur printanière – we hear subtle references to Wagner, although always delivered with Jongen’s own French-flavoured musical accents, complete with exotically shifting tonalities. That sense of the exotic is most vividly displayed in the Chanson roumaine with its almost gypsy-like florid vocal outbursts.

Jongen spent virtually the entire period of the First World War in England, a refugee from occupied Belgium, and there he wrote the complex, but somewhat elusive Paix. There is a distinctly Debussyian quality about this, but it is washed through with Jongen’s own characteristically fuzzy musical brushstrokes which his brother, Leon, described as having been inspired by “the misty sunshine of England”. Apart from Dans son écrin, which dates back to 1909, and Paix of 1916, the remaining Mélodies de maturité (Defrise’s own collective title for these otherwise unconnected songs) were all written not only after the end of the War, but after the musical revolution brought about by the Second Viennese School. In Rouge, composed in 1928, there are hints of the kind of tonal ambiguousness which was all the rage in post-War European music, but which clearly perplexed Jongen to the point where he felt out of step with the musical climate of the times and seemed to lose interest in composition soon after.

Craig White’s piano accompaniments are unfailingly masterly, beautifully encompassing Jongen’s opulent textures and often perplexing musical identities, and tremendously supportive of Sarah Defrise’s pristine, focused and laser-pitched voice. At times, one yearns for just a little more mellowness and depth to her voice – it has an almost boyish brightness which she can never quite disguise – but as convincing and authoritative presentations of a body of songs which has hitherto largely escaped notice, these performances, along with a fine recorded sound and the exceptionally generous, superbly presented documentation (in the guise of hard-back 74-page booklet complete with full texts and translations) make this a very important and welcome new release.

Marc Rochester

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