In a biographical pamphlet published by J & W Chester in 1922, Lord Berners described Joseph Jongen as a composer whose music had "remarkable lyric charm and dramatic power".
That acute summary of his musical language makes his neglect all the more puzzling. If Jongen is known at all, it is largely through his finely crafted organ music, rather than his substantial output for orchestra or his chamber music (including three fine string quartets). Born in Liège on December 14th, 1873, his father was a cabinet-maker and wood-carver who specialized in church furnishings. But he was also a keen amateur musician (he had studied the trombone in his youth), who had encountered the best music Paris had to offer when he spent six months there in 1867. Jongen began to study the piano when he was seven years old, and his teacher (who was organist of Saint-Jacques in Liège) soon encouraged him to take up the organ as well. Jongen continued his studies at the Conservatoire in Liège while still singing in the choirs of several churches. His time at the Liège Conservatoire was formative, with his first chance to hear the great Eugene Ysaÿe, and visits to the city by composer/conductors such as Vincent d'Indy and Richard Strauss.
Jongen was a brilliant student and had already started to demonstrate his gifts as a composer in his early teens. In 1897 he won the Belgian Prix de Rome, which gave him the chance to study in Italy and to travel. He made the most of this opportunity, setting out first for Berlin in 1898, where the concerts conducted by Arthur Nikisch and Felix Weingartner made a lasting impression, as did performances of Strauss's Heldenleben (conducted by the composer) and Jongen's first hearing of Brahms's Violin Concerto, played by Joseph Joachim. One of his grandest works from this period was a symphony, written under the influence of Strauss's tone poems. He took it to Strauss and was delighted to be welcomed warmly and taken seriously, recalling later that Strauss's comments were "like beams of light, as if a thick curtain had been lifted from my eyes".
After a visit to Bayreuth in the summer of 1899, Jongen settled for a few months in Munich. It was here that he wrote the "Violin Concerto in B minor", Op 17, for the violinist Emile Chaumont (1878-1942), a lifelong friend from Liège. The following year Jongen was in Paris, where he met Dukas, Vierne and Faure. Back in Rome at the end of 1901, he met Florent Schmitt (who had just won the Prix de Rome in Paris). The pair of them struck up a friendship during their time as fellow prize-winners at the Villa Medici. While Jongen's next work-the Cello Concerto, Op 18, from 1900-enjoyed a good deal of success, the Violin Concerto was largely overlooked even in his lifetime. It was published by Durand in 1914-with a dedication not to Chaumont, but to the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe. Ysaÿe admired Jongen greatly, and was an enthusiastic advocate of his music, but not, it seems, of the Violin Concerto. It had one performance in Paris at the time of publication but the critic in 'Le Mercure musical' (May 1914) noted only that it was "excellently interpreted by M. Charles Herman". Herman was a Belgian violinist who was leader of the Concerts Lamoureux in Paris for some years, later taking up a teaching post at the Conservatoire in Brussels. Another performance was given in Ostend in 1930, but it was not until October 1938 that it attracted critical attention when it was again heard in Paris. On that occasion it was played by Henry Merckel, a violinist whose impressive solo career (particularly as an advocate of new music) went in parallel with his work as one of the city's most prominent orchestral leaders, including a thirty-year stint with the orchestra of the Paris Opera. Merckel's performance was part of a gala evening celebrating Franco-Belgian friendship. Aptly enough, it was reviewed for "Le Temps" by Florent Schmitt, Jongen's old friend from his student years in Rome. Some four decades after its composition, Schmitt’s reaction is as fascinating as it is warm-hearted. He begins by discussing the first two movements:
"This concerto, which, they say, dates from the 1900s, wears its age lightly, and if the initial part seems to delight in a slightly stiff dignity, it is the hesitant shyness of a personality that is still looking, however, towards the Andante-more matured, blended with delicious melancholy, an outpouring of warm lyricism".
Schmitt's comments on the first movement are fair enough: though there is plenty of florid solo writing, the mood is dominated by the rather stern opening figure, descending, then rising on a dotted rhythm, that suggests something of Jongen's debt to Cesar Franck (he was still in his mid-twenties when he composed this concerto). A contrasting theme in E major shows another Franck characteristic-returning repeatedly to one or two notes around which the whole melody seems to revolve. As Schmitt suggests, it is in the slow movement (not in fact an 'Andante' but marked Adagio, molto espressivo) that Jongen appears to be set free with song-like lines for the soloist often seeming to spiral upwards, and orchestration that is delicately coloured for the most part, blossoming into a big tutti just once, near the end.
Schmitt reserves his highest praise for the finale-a movement about which Jongen himself seemed to have had some doubts before publication: the score suggests an optional cut of some ten pages near the beginning, removing the whole of the orchestral introduction except the first two bars (the work is played complete on this recording). But Schmitt evidently had no such worries:
"The finale, so penetrating at the start in its rising sixths in the strings, and so bright at the end, when it explodes in a lush profusion of themes and rhythms that verges on extravagance…"
Again, the benevolent influence of Franck can be heard in the propulsive rising and falling theme heard in the lower strings at the start, taken up by violins and violas over low pedal notes, and used to drive the music forward before being coloured by spiky woodwind chords. The first solo entry is a dashing counterpoint to the opening theme which continues to rumble away beneath. A second theme is a more tranquil contrast, supported by harmonies that seem effortlessly mobile. As the opening theme is used to urge the music towards an exciting climax, the key changes from B minor to B major and a thrilling coda ensues-presumably the "lush profusion" of Schmitt's review-ending with a brief flourish of woodwind and brass fanfares to underline the transformation of the theme into the major key. Schmitt was completely won over-although as well as praising Jongen profusely, he couldn't resist taking a swipe at a rather unlikely target:
"This concerto, which I believe was previously unknown in France, may be among the finest violin concertos, advantageously replacing, if necessary, the interesting but hackneyed Mendelssohn, and even more so that of Beethoven which is completely devoid of any actual musical interest". (!)
The Violin Concerto was one of Jongen's first substantial works. During his stay in Paris, he composed the "Adagio symphonique in B major", Op 20, completing it in April 1901 (the manuscript is dated) and dedicating it to his friend Joseph Debroux (1866–1929), with whom he produced some editions of little-known Eighteenth-century music. Beginning with a haunting horn figure that comes to dominate much of the work, the violin soloist plays high-lying lyrical lines over quite a rich orchestral texture. Towards the end, the soloist engages in a brief but lovely dialogue with solo oboe and flute before the music turns to harp-drenched chords of B major, with hints of the opening theme beneath.
The "Fantasia in E major", Op 12, is the earliest work on this recording, completed in October 1898, just before Jongen began his European travels. A short piece, it begins slowly before becoming more animated. The most memorable moment comes near the end, where the soloist plays a version of the main theme notable for its uncomplicated lyricism, Jongen's confident handling of the orchestra, and his gift for telling harmonies.
Sylvio Lazzari (1857–1944) was born in Italy. A pupil of Gounod at the Paris Conservatoire, he was encouraged by Franck and Chausson and his music owes a considerable debt to them, as well as to Wagner. He is probably best known for the opera "La tour de feu" (The lighthouse), given its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1928. It was one of the first operas to make use of cinema effects (the final scene was performed in front of a projected film of a stormy sea). The "Rapsodie in E minor for Violin and Orchestra" was composed six years earlier (the manuscript is dated 'Suresnes, 16 April 1922, Easter Sunday'). The fluid harmonies and lyrical lines of this work reveal a composer of considerable skill, while the solemn chromatic brass chords that introduce the closing section suggest a flair for moments of post-Wagnerian nobility. Cast in a single movement, the Rapsodie has an appropriately free structure-and one that is marked throughout by music of singular beauty and poise, deftly orchestrated. Quite the pleasant (if not profound) listen.