Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953) Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra Op. 81 (1926) [33.21] Passacaglie et Gigue Op. 90 (1929) [17.33] Sonata Eroica, for organ solo Op. 94 (1930) [17.04]
Christian Schmitt (organ)
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern/Martin Haselböck
rec. Grand Hall, Philharmonie, Luxembourg, January 2012 CPO 777 593-2 SACD [66.16]
The first question is, who was Joseph Jongen? It doesn't help that the black and white photo inside the booklet is actually of Alexandre Guilmant, who, it must be admitted also had a beard but a bushier one and who died anyway in 1911. The second reason for asking the question is that if you are anything like me you may, if you have thought of this Belgium composer at all, have associated him exclusively with the organ loft and possibly only with a little piece called ‘Toccatina’. Here’s a chance to discover more about him, although other works have been recorded and are available elsewhere. Perhaps Jongen could be included in that silly game ‘name six famous Belgians’.
The programme offered is well balanced with a solo organ piece, a large-scale work for organ and orchestra and another for orchestra alone. The organ used here is a monster of a four manual found in the Philharmonic Hall in Luxembourg. The specification is given in the notes with the fourth manual of four octaves called the ‘solo expressif’. The notes compiled enthusiastically, I think by Martin Haselböck, describe it rather poetically as a ‘naturally a universal instrument”. Positioned as it is between the French and German traditions it has lately, apparently, “redefined its identity”.
The wonderfully dramatic Sonata Eroica, Jongen’s best-known organ work, was actually composed for the organ at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1930 for its inauguration. I happen to have heard that instrument recently and am not surprised that the Luxembourg instrument was preferred by CPO. The piece starts with a unison passage recalling Bach. Other composers who might be brought to mind are Liszt, Fauré, Franck and Reger. Also I detect a possibly Belgian folk melody in the quieter middle section scored, as it were, for the Voix céleste stop and the Dulciana. The piece certainly embraces ones attention. It ends with a rather sober fugue but that turns out to be something vividly theatrical to bring the piece to a rousing conclusion.
The fact that Jongen and his music are so little known may be reflected in his rather dull titles. For example, choosing to call an orchestral work Passacaglie et Gigue, written in 1929, may indicate a somewhat neo-classical academic exercise. In the event it does not begin with a set of Bach-style chords setting the harmonic basis but starts instead with a melody quietly in triple time in the bass. This finds itself transformed by the winds and strings in succession. Later contrapuntal elements begin to emerge alongside the more chorale-like textures. The Gigue opens with a solo drum followed by a dancing dotted rhythm which clearly quotes and then develops the Tyneside tune called ‘The Keel Row’. This builds into something exciting and impassioned. I’m pleased to say that the two sections are separately tracked.
Jongen's most extraordinary and grand work is the Symphonie Concertante op. 81 composed in 1926. Here the organ and a vast orchestra are ideally combined. The organ is not ‘a bit-part player’ but is clearly incorporated within the ensemble and texture. Curiously Symphonie Concertante was written for an organ positioned in the Rodman Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia. It was Wanamaker (1863-1928) who commissioned the work. He died only two years after its first performance.
There are four movements. The first is stated to be ‘in modo dorian’. As implied above this makes for quite a serious opening with the organ drifting in and out of the soundscape. The second is a divertimento of a similar length, marked ‘Allegro vivo’. It acts as a skittish scherzo with the organ leading the way but in which there are also some reflective sections. I was much taken by the impressionistic and sensual ‘Molto Lento: Lento misterioso’ third movement. This is the longest of the four and leads off with a Debussian flute but then its nemesis follows. Louis Vierne would have much enjoyed this ‘Toccata’ marked ‘Allegro moderato’. It begins in an almost Hollywood style and ends up bringing the work to a powerful conclusion. Altogether Jongen’s Symphonie holds the attention and is imaginative and beautifully crafted.
The performances are very effective if rather earnest. They are well recorded and a suitable balance is struck which neither highlights the organ nor hides it. So, a worthy tribute all-round to a much neglected figure.