It is a conundrum of classical music that certain composers of indisputable talent, whose posthumous fame should be assured, can nonetheless be forgotten owing to changing fashions. The most famous example, of course, is the greatest of composers, Johann Sebastian Bach himself. Though Bach and some others (e.g., Charles-Valentin Alkan) have enjoyed rediscovery, still others are not yet so fortunate. With the sole exception of his organ music, the Belgian composer Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) falls into the latter category. The Jongen Project, a group of accomplished instrumentalists headed by flutist Linda Bento-Rei, has taken an important step in correcting this injustice by recording an all-Jongen CD which includes four beautiful chamber works. Conservative for their time, the Belgian's works are very “audience-friendly,” showing the influence of his countryman, César Franck, and, especially, Claude Debussy, though Jongen's musical language is consistently distinctive.
Written in 1923, the Concert à cinq, Op. 71, is scored for harp, flute, and string trio, and shows the unmistakable influence of French impressionism. Though they are largely orchestral musicians, the players demonstrate outstanding chamber music skills. In addition to Bento-Rei, violinist Jason Horowitz, violist Rebecca Gitter, cellist Blaise Déjardin (all current members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's string section), and retired BSO principal harpist Ann Hobson Pilot all collaborate and interact with the flexibility, grace, and seamlessness of a seasoned ensemble. The largely extroverted first movement, played persuasively here, contrasts starkly with the second. Placed at the center of the larger work, the second movement's penitential tune, modal and bittersweet, is one of Jongen's exceptional creations, and the artists play it affectingly. The third and final movement's Spanish flavor and luscious harmonic vocabulary are also hallmarks of the French impressionists, but in the unexpected final bare-octaves chord where Debussy and Ravel would likely have signed off with harmony, Jongen stakes out his own territory. Yet amidst all the preceding gorgeous colors of the movement, the players' insistent rhythm, like castanets, pulls the listener along irresistibly. This enchanting work would make a fine program companion for Debussy's Sonata for flute, viola, and harp, Ravel's Introduction et Allegro, and André Jolivet's Chant de Linos—the last, in its later version, scored for Jongen's exact instrumentation.
The four-movement, 30-minute Sonata for flute and piano, Op. 77, is a major rediscovery for the flute repertoire. Though its Gallic provenance is evident, it yet retains a savor unique to Jongen. Linda Bento-Rei and pianist Vytas Baksys are expert tour guides through the many landscapes of the first movement: powerfully dramatic, playful, singing, and mysterious. The second movement is a brilliant scherzo-étude with delicious staccato passages offset by silky legato themes; in these performers' highly capable hands it is a thrilling and delicious experience. The third movement would seem to be Jongen's tip of the hat to both Ravel and Debussy. The outer sections are spare in texture—very much in Ravel's late style dépouillé (stripped-down); the central section bears more than a passing resemblance to Debussy's piano prelude The Sunken Cathedral, based on a Breton legend of a submerged cathedral that rises out of the sea once a year only to sink below the waves again. To the swirling waters and iridescent colors Baksys summons up, Bento-Rei adds flute interjections evoking seabirds soaring around the great edifice. After these sumptuous harmonies, the return to the simplicity of the movement's opening is genuinely moving. The final movement is an exhilarating jig which also regularly superimposes lyrical writing for both instruments over the compelling dance rhythm. The players' ability to conjure multiple moods is as impressive as their technical virtuosity. One hopes that many talented flutists and flute teachers will hear this fine performance and seek out this neglected masterwork.
Jongen's Rhapsodie, Op. 70 is scored for the unusual combination of piano with woodwind quintet—Vytas Baksys, piano; Linda Bento-Rei, flute; Andrea Bonsignore, oboe; Catherine Hudgins, clarinet; Patricia Yee, bassoon; and Nick Rubenstein, horn. As its name implies, the work is a loosely structured series of varying moods and tempi. The Modéré opening section introduces the individual wind instruments sequentially, punctuated by arpeggios from flute and piano in lush French impressionist style. This is followed by a sharply contrasting Moorish habanera (if such a thing were possible) whose characteristic rhythm is supplied by the piano, with a changing instrumentation playing the theme over it. The players' subtle rubato—no doubt difficult to achieve without a conductor—makes this section smoky and seductive. A third section, Molto vivo, brings us vigorously back into bright sunshine while ingeniously weaving in echoes from the two previous sections. A more moderate passage is left initially to the wind instruments only, becoming still more relaxed and lyrical when the piano reënters. Nonetheless, it builds up before long to the powerful triple-meter final section, full of jubilation. Soon enough, in keeping with the freedom of a rhapsody, the energy begins to taper off as the music seems about to drift into slumber. One last time the composer skillfully reintroduces material from the work's opening section, as if in the vague recollection of a dream, before the surprise of a final outburst of joy. Baksys, Bento-Rei, Bonsignore, Hudgins, Yee, and Rubenstein have the sound of an experienced chamber group: each individual gracefully takes and yields the spotlight as appropriate, and as a group, their intonation, balances, and ensemble are all one could wish for. This is another vividly evocative rendition and one that should arouse the interest of wind ensembles (with access to an excellent pianist!) hoping to enlarge their repertoire.
The Danse lente, Op. 56, stands somewhat apart from its discmates, not merely for its date of composition—1918 vs. 1922-1924—but also for its simplicity and general feeling of introspection. The composer created a version for flute and harp, and another, only slightly modified, for flute and piano. Bento-Rei and Baksys give us the latter in a simple, direct reading that is the more moving for its avoidance of “interpretation.” Given the work's date, one might expect a dirge for war-torn Europe, but aside from one expansive climax, the prevailing mood is of a bittersweet, gentle yearning. (It is worth noting that the piece was written in London, where Jongen lived in exile during World War I.) The final harmony is particularly evocative of unfulfilled desire for resolution: the piano forms a minor seventh chord while the flute adds the ninth to it, but neither seventh nor ninth resolves as expected to the tonic chord, as if the composer were telling us that sometimes we simply have to learn to live without what we yearn for.
In my view, this recording is a resounding success on all counts. Its performances are passionately committed and beautiful; the selection of repertoire enables the listener to hear Joseph Jongen's musical influences but also the aspects of his music that make it uniquely his; the excellent program notes by Steven Ledbetter are helpful to connoisseur and layperson alike; and the sensitive engineering of Antonio Oliart has resulted in exemplary sound quality, both sumptuous and transparent, detailed and atmospheric. I hope this is Volume 1 in a series exploring the chamber music of this composer so unjustly neglected.
-Geoff Wieting, The Boston Music Intelligencer