It is a delicious feeling to be “in the know” when few others are. I had that feeling momentarily at “The Jongen Project” CD Release Concert at New England Conservatory’s Brown Hall Sunday afternoon. In her introductory remarks, oboist Andrea Bonsignore stated that in her 40 years as a professional musician she had never encountered the music of the once world-renowned Belgian composer Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) until this recording and concert were planned. I wanted to reply that most organists have played or at least heard his superb organ works (as an organist myself, I count him among my favorite composers to perform) though nearly all of us remain in the dark when it comes to his works in other genres.
The concert opened with Jongen’s Élégie, scored for a quartet of flutes, played by Linda Bento-Rei, Aiven O’Leary, Marjorie Hogan, and Katie Farrington. Within a comparatively narrow pitch range and using four instruments of the same timbre, the composer found an impressive array of textures and colors, helped, of course, by the imaginative playing of the quartet. It began with solo flute Bento-Rei spinning out a melody of longing memory over a pulsating accompaniment that later became an impressionistic undulating. Occasionally, phrase attacks were also a bit “impressionistic” as well; a bit of “conducting” by one of the quartet members would not have gone amiss here. Eventually, the texture was simplified into pairs of flutes alternating with each other. There were sighing figures and the kaleidoscopic harmonies that I associate with many of Jongen’s organ works. This gentle elegy made an unconventional but touching beginning to the concert.
Jongen’s Sonata for Flute and Piano of 1924 is a four-movement, half-hour masterwork that seems a good deal shorter. Bento-Rei and pianist Vytas Baksys, encountering a musical smorgasbord, shared it liberally. The first movement Prélude, opening with bracing octaves and chords in the piano, was by turns dramatic, rhapsodic, lyrical, and reflective. The Animé scherzo is largely an effervescent staccato showpiece (though not without a few sustained passages) that impressed and charmed. The third movement, Modéré, begins with a spare texture of two voices in the piano, much in the mode of Maurice Ravel’s late style dépouillé (stripped-down style), but when the flute enters, the harmony becomes more colorful. Especially striking was a piano interlude reminiscent of Claude Debussy’s piano prelude “The Engulfed Cathedral” which depicts a cathedral rising out of the ocean; here Bento-Rei added interjections evoking seabirds. The movement concludes with a moving return to the spare opening texture, this time including the flute. The final Gigue begins with yet another piano solo, Baksys setting the brilliant jig rhythm. Bento-Rei’s entrance, however, temporarily subverted this with a showy cadenza completely free of metrical constraints; soon enough, though, the flute joins the piano in the jig. Yet even in this breathless dance, the composer inserts some duple-meter passages of lyrical beauty. The artists made the most of these contrasts on the way to the brilliant ending; a final fragment of the jig subject provided an exclamation point. This sonata by rights should take its place in the standard flute repertoire alongside the works of Carl Reinecke, Gabriel Fauré, Francis Poulenc, and Serge Prokofiev.
The Rhapsodie (1922) for woodwind quintet and piano was the program’s pièce de résistance. Bento-Rei and Baksys were joined by oboist Andrea Bonsignore, clarinetist Catherine Hudgins, bassoonist Patricia Yee, and hornist Nick Rubenstein. The players’ sense of fantasy and adventure made this delicious. To cite one example, a kind of Moorish habanera early on, played initially by the upper winds and piano and then the whole ensemble created an exotic atmosphere, having both unanimity of ensemble and flexible rhythm. The only slight distraction was from a few brief dominations of the texture by the over-exuberant horn. Generally, though, the give-and-take was very satisfying. After its numerous opportunities—fully exploited by all the players—to display musical and technical skill, the work seemed to trail off drowsily to a peaceful ending until the ensemble surprised us with one last eruption of jubilation. Jongen’s Rhapsodie, performed at this high level, could hardly fail to find an audience among music-lovers of all stripes.
If I were arranging this program, the Rhapsodie would come last because all else would be anti-climactic. But the program finished as unconventionally as it began—with the Danse lente for flute and piano. Though composed in 1918 and characterized by a steady triple meter, “Slow Dance” didn’t feel like a dance or the elegy for war-torn Europe one might expect; rather, it had a touching, bittersweet nostalgia that the simple, direct playing of Bento-Rei and Baksys underlined. So we went out with a lovely whimper, not a bang, introduced to another elegant, contemplative flute work somewhat in the manner of Fauré’s Morceau de concours, if less sunny.
As Bonsignore noted at the outset, it is baffling that some outstanding composers can fall into virtual oblivion in just a few decades. However, for a performing musician the pleasure of holding a “secret” of this type is not to keep it but to share it with a wider public, to unearth “buried treasures.” I would guess this was the major motivation for the performers at this concert, and they took pains to prepare a beautiful performance. Let us hope that this concert as well as the new CD by these artists will begin to correct the injustice of Joseph Jongen’s neglect outside of the organ world.