in: Reviews

January 7, 2014

Injustice Overturned for Jongen

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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.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

9 Comments

  1. Pleaase visit http://www.lindabento-rei.com to purchase a copy of “The Jongen Project” CD.

    Comment by Linda Bento-Rei — January 8, 2014 at 10:02 am

  2. Geoffrey – I felt a pang of guilt when I finished my remarks and failed to mention the importance of Jongen’s work in the organ world – my bad indeed! I am an Oberlin grad as well, and am glad to read your work. Thank you for covering the performance and adding another voice to the Jongen fan club.

    Comment by andrea bonsignore — January 8, 2014 at 11:09 am

  3. Fwiw, an amateur-organist friend reading this writes, astutely:

    \\ Jongen is kind of famous for not being famous. He’s not a bad composer, in kind of a backed-off latterday French impressionist / early-modernist style, a pre-Poulenc style but composed later than Poulenc, not earlier. He wrote this big, big showy showpiece for organ and orchestra that never gets played. mostly because people who have orchestras tend to care very little for the organ and orchestra literature, with certain exceptions.

    Comment by David Moran — January 8, 2014 at 7:00 pm

  4. Where, you ask, are the concert reviews of yesteryear? ProQuest dug this up for me from the Boston Globe’s archives for 5 May 1992:

    “At Boston’s Trinity Church Friday night, the Dedham Choral Society was observing its 25 years under Brian Jones’s direction with a nice, satisfying wallow in Gallic voluptuousness. Debussy, Poulenc, and Joseph Jongen made up the program, for which Jones was the organ soloist and James David Christie the conductor.

    “The newsiest piece was the Symphonie Concertante (1926) of Joseph Jongen (1873-1953), who was one of that breed of prolific, learned, timbre-intoxicated, Franck- and d’Indy-influenced organ composers that only organists seem to be familiar with. In old age, according to Grove’s, Jongen felt musical life had passed him by and consequently withdrew “all but 137” of his works from publication.

    “The Symphonie Concertante is a tour de force of having it both ways. On the one hand there are its displays of time-honored challenges to soloistic hands and feet, its all but statutory ‘religioso’ section. its eager fuguishness. On the other hand, what a night out for bored orchestral musicians lusting to ‘play out.’ Accompanying Josephine Baker can’t have been all that different.

    “Occasionally one thanked Trinity’s gorgeous acoustics for throwing a veil over some rough edges (mostly orchestral), but otherwise the performance lacked nothing in verve and propulsion and an outright savor of the music’s very special qualities. There were plenty of moments to remember — the dignified chugging of the organ’s entry in the first movement, the mauve somberness of the Franckian slow movement, the sense one had at the end that compositional power and insistence and weight of tradition had carried us all forward to the joyously Technicolored final pages …”

    Something I hadn’t noted (or known) at the time was that the piece was originally intended for the mighty instrument in Wanamaker’s Philadelphia department store, which is a story in itself — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanamaker_organ

    Comment by Richard Buell — January 9, 2014 at 7:48 pm

  5. Transcribing the above 1992 text for BMInt, I left out a nice juicy phrase that should have gone in right after “the dignified chugging of the organ’s entry in the first movement,” namely:

    “the swirling ambiguities of flute stops vs. flutes proper”

    Just for the record. These details matter a lot to me in my old age.

    Comment by Richard Buell — January 9, 2014 at 8:47 pm

  6. O brute injustice ! O wretched obscurity ! To have to withdraw all but 137 works from publication !

    In solidarity, I am going to insist that my enduring fame must rest only on my 137 most significant accomplishments. No more, I am adamant.

    Comment by SamW — January 10, 2014 at 2:08 pm

  7. Richard – Thank you for the info on the Trinity Church performance. I was tempted to shoot off an email to John Finney to implore him to program the organ and symphony piece. Now I will definitely write that email. I think 20 plus years is too long to wait for a reprisal of the work. I feel like Oliver Twist: “more Jongen please…” AB

    Comment by andrea bonsignore — January 10, 2014 at 9:18 pm

  8. November 15, 2010 Mark DeVoto posted his review of a performance Jongen’s rarely performed and very worthy Mass, op. 130 (1945) by The Spectrum Singers [here].

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — January 11, 2014 at 4:06 pm

  9. Thank you, John. I’d forgotten I got a Belgian recording of the Mass years ago. The performance was merely adequate, as I recall, but the music fascinated. Wish I’d heard your performance.

    And Andrea–when Oberlin’s new Finney Chapel organ was inaugurated in 2001 (2 weeks after September 11), I heard my teacher, Haskell Thomson, play the Jongen Symphonie Concertante with the Oberlin Orchestra. Wonderful!

    Comment by Geoff Wieting — January 11, 2014 at 4:55 pm

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