In his informative sleeve-notes, Nigel Simeone introduces the CD with a quote from a biographical pamphlet published by J & W Chester in 1922, where Lord Berners describes Joseph Jongen as a composer whose music had ‘remarkable lyric charm and dramatic power’. Simeone goes on to say that Berners’s appraisal would seem to make the composer’s overall neglect all the more mystifying. While it is mainly through his well-constructed and effective organ music that Jongen is known at all, his substantial output for orchestra or chamber music lies largely undiscovered.
If you come to these three works from the Belgian composer by way of his organ compositions, and written when he was still in his twenties, then the abundant lyricism which Berners remarked on is present almost from the very first note of the quite charming Fantasia in E major, the earliest work recorded here. Graffin ‘sings’ the lyrical cantilena melody with great affection, while incorporating more than sufficient passion when this is called for. Not surprisingly the musical influences seem cosmopolitan, with hints of fellow-countryman Franck, Richard Strauss and Chausson—even Elgar, at times.
The work that follows is by a far-less familiar name—Italian-born Sylvio Lazzari, a pupil of Gounod at the Paris Conservatoire. Again the musical pedigree looks towards Chausson, Franck and Wagner. There are undoubtedly some appealing moments in his Rapsodie in E minor, though Graffin seems slightly less at ease here, despite the stylistic similarity with the Jongen, and doesn’t appear to project and dominate proceedings when the score clearly needs it. It is perhaps unfortunate that, when compiling this CD essentially of Jongen’s music, such a relatively substantial fill-up by another composer had to be found. On the other hand, though, Lazzari is just another composer whose fairly extensive output is hardly known, except, perhaps, for his opera La tour de feu (The Lighthouse)—distinguished by the fact that it was one of the first operas to use cinema effects—so Hyperion could be seen to be doing their bit for him here.
Jongen’s Adagio symphonique in B major continues in much the same vein as the earlier Fantasia, though is a more substantial offering all-round. Whereas the writing in the first work tended to give the main musical material to the soloist, with the orchestra accompanying, here there is a greater degree of sharing. This results in a good deal of writing where the violin soars high over an ever-richer orchestral texture, effectively preparing the ground and paving the way for the fully-fledged Violin Concerto to follow.
The Violin Concerto in B minor was written a few months after a visit to Bayreuth and perhaps this is why there are hints of Wagner, especially at the start of, and during the most appealing slow movement. It was ultimately dedicated to his Belgian compatriot, violinist and composer, Eugène Ysaÿe, who greatly admired Jongen and was, indeed, a strong advocate of his music, but not really, it seems, of the Violin Concerto itself. The premiere was eventually given in Paris by Charles Herman—another Belgian violinist—but after that, virtually forgotten.
If it were simply down to the slow movement and finale, the work might no doubt have been championed by such an eminent musician as its dedicatee, Ysaÿe, and better survived the ravages of time. The opening movement certainly has a more academic feel to it, and it is almost as if Jongen is afraid to let himself go emotionally. Perhaps he felt somewhat constricted by the formal restraints of a concerto first-movement, waiting instead for the relative freedom of the slow movement where he perhaps considered it generally more acceptable to pour his heart out—possibly a little of the organ-music composer might have triggered this apparent reticence? The finale, with its triumphant close in the tonic major, also has a greater sense of freedom. In this sense it is like the preceding movement, even though Jongen did have some doubts about its overall construction, and initially considered an optional cut of some ten pages near the beginning, removing the whole of the orchestral introduction except the first two bars. This doesn’t happen on the present recording.
French composer and music-critic, Florent Schmitt—the composer’s old friend from their student days—was certainly won over by the concerto—particularly from the second movement onwards. He went as far as to write, in ‘Le Temps’, one of Paris’s most important daily newspapers from 1861-1942: ‘This concerto [Jongen’s], which I believe was previously unknown in France, may be among the finest violin concertos, advantageously replacing Mendelssohn, and even more so that of Beethoven which is completely devoid of any actual musical interest’. Naturally even the most ardent Belgophile would disagree with this, and, in any case, Schmitt was not only well known for being exceedingly controversial at times, but also for loudly shouting out his critical opinions from his seat in the concert hall, all of which occasioned the music publisher, Heugel, to brand him an ‘irresponsible lunatic’.
Despite the slight reservation about the inclusion of Lazzari’s Rapsodie, Hyperion are once more to be congratulated for pulling out the stops to ensure that Jongen might become better known, not only as a purveyor of fine organ music, but also in other major genres. The recording and playing is commensurate with the standards set by other CDs in the company’s outstanding Romantic Violin Concerto series. Even if the Violin Concerto itself isn’t absolutely essential listening, the Fantasia certainly deserves a place alongside some of the more familiar short works for violin and orchestra by Beethoven, Dvoŕák, Svendsen, to name but a few—and there is still the concerto’s slow movement, too.
Graffin is no stranger to North European rarities. Hyperion has recorded him in rare French works for violin and orchestra and the three Saint-Saens concertos, Timpani in the Gaubert concerto and Avie in the Coleridge-Taylor.
All in all, then, this is an attractive disc which will certainly not disappoint, and one which would grace any manner of CD collection.