Robert Stove
Limelight, Australia
April 2015

How painfully often small nations' composers—unless they have a Sibelius's or a Grieg's overt patriotism—are slighted by mainstream historiography. Cases in point: Enescu, Franck, Martin, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) surely possessed all the musical credential needed for gaining worldwide respect. To a child-prodigy background he added the harmonic succulence of Bax, a melodic allure not far inferior to Rachmaninov, and the appealing earnestness of Schumann. Alas, Jongen resided mostly in his native Belgium—like Franck, he hailed from Liège—and paid the price. He aggravated this problem by his zeal for writing organ music, a genre which most non-organists now consider (to their loss) a singularly uninviting ghetto.

The present CD's helpful booklet essay announces that Jongen's half-hour-long Violin Concerto (1900) won a rave review from 'Le Temps' in Paris, which rightly described it as 'blended with delicious melancholy, an outpouring or warm lyricism'. One learns with sorrow that, notwithstanding such critical approval for the piece, Jongen's compatriot Ysaÿe—its dedicatee—refused to perform it. Did he think it insufficiently spectacular?

Perhaps. Yet it well justifies reviving: it is piquantly scored, its treatment of woodwinds being especially attractive; and it several times anticipates Elgar's masterwork in the same key, with a slow movement of bucolic nostalgia. The Fantasia and Adagio Symphonique are much shorter than, but contemporaneous with, the concerto. If anything, they exhibit still more felicitous touches of orchestration and they occasionally bring to mind Chausson's Poème, which let us face it is no mean company to keep.

Coupled with these Jongen delights is a 16-minute 1922 rhapsody by the Tyrolean-born, mostly French-resident Sylvio Lazzari (1857-1944), remembered—if at all—as a Franck disciple. While, beside Jongen's innate tact, Lazzari sounds a bit crude, garrulous, and repetitive (his chamber music might show better discipline), lush post-Romantic charm can undeniably be found here.

Technically and artistically Philippe Graffin once again proves first-class, his slender yet eloquent tone being altogether appropriate. Recorded sound is admirable, though a little drier than the label's very finest. Note that despite Jongen's Walloon birthplace, he has here attracted not only a French soloist and a British conductor but a Flemish orchestra. Maybe the 'inevitable' mutual loathing between Flanders and Wallonia is chiefly a journalistic beat-up. Those who know Belgium at first hand, and love it, will hope this is true.