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4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating and enjoyable Prix de Rome cantata, beautifully performed and recorded, 11 Feb 2013
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This review is from: Jongen - Rome Cantata Comala; Claire de Lune (Audio CD)
This is disc that is both highly enjoyable and slightly frustrating at the same time, though I should point out straight away that the latter is in no way related to the quality of either Jongen's music or the performances. 'Comala' is an early work, his submission for the Belgian 'Prix de Rome' competition (modelled on the famous French version), which it won unanimously. Although designated a "cantata", Jongen's music sounds like extracts from a grand, fin de siècle opera and marvellously full-blooded it is too. Jongen was only required to set the first two scenes of the libretto selected for the 1897 competition so the work ends rather in mid-air from a dramatic point of view, an effect exacerbated by the fact that the second scene concludes not with Jongen's beautiful setting of Comala's grief-stricken response to Fingal's reported death but somewhat incongruously with a rousing chorus of returning warriors (described in the libretto as "heard in the distance", that is not the effect here though I suspect their sudden and robust presence is due to the composer wanting to conclude the piece on a resolute note rather than to any miscalculation on the part of the artists or sound engineers).

So much for the quibbles then: leaving aside issues with the dramaturgy for which Jongen cannot be held responsible, the music itself provides a tantalising glimpse of what a Jongen opera might sound like - and certainly whets the appetite for hearing more of his vocal and theatrical output. What is astonishing, given his youth and relative inexperience, is his mastery of the orchestra - this is a beautifully and richly scored piece, in which echoes of Wagner and, at least according to the booklet essay, Richard Strauss, may be easily forgiven when they result in orchestration of such sophistication and colour. The chorus of the warriors departing for battle (and of their startling return at the end) makes particularly impressive use of the brass but there is much here that is more subtle and really quite beautiful: the haunting orchestral introduction to the second scene, for instance, murmuring strings evoking the twilight atmosphere in a very individual way. That second act, indeed the work as a whole, could almost be considered a massive scena for the soprano since, although she interacts with other characters and the chorus along the way, Comala bears the weight of the piece dramatically and has by far some of the most intense and moving music (though there is an very fine extended "aria" - I use the term very loosely, as the music here is through-composed - for the tenor role of Hidallan in the first scene); although not perhaps easily extracted from the score, her rapturous paean to the night that opens part two and her later response to the reports of Fingal's death, which moves from "savage exaltation" (as the libretto puts it) to grief, both deserve to be more widely known and would surely win the composer more admirers were they to crop up occasionally in operatic recitals.

All the soloists acquit themselves well here, Sophie Marin-Degor very impressive in the role of Comala and Marc Laho an ardent Hidallan; the orchestral and choral performances are absolutely top notch and captured in exceptionally good sound of real clarity and impressive depth.

I make no claims for the music here being that of an undiscovered masterpiece nor does it represent Jongen's mature style but it is an extremely enjoyable work and one that contains many beauties; if you are a fan of Late Romantic opera, I am sure you will respond to much of this score and perhaps, like me, wish that Jongen had used his competition entry as the starting point for a more extensive treatment of the subject. As it is, the score lasts around 40 minutes so - even with the addition of two extra works ('Clair de lune' for violin and piano from 1908 and a lovely 1915 orchestration of the same piece, with echoes of Ravel's 'Daphnis et Chloe') - the disc is quite short measure at 55 minutes total playing time. With minor qualifications taken into account, however, this disc still comes warmly recommended.
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Jongen - Rome Cantata Comala; Claire de Lune
Jongen - Rome Cantata Comala; Claire de Lune by Roger Joakim (Audio CD - 2007)
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