on 28 January 2014
A disc of two rarities this. Joseph Jongen's Three Symphonic Movements receive their first recordings, as does the companion piece on the disc. Overall the enterprise of all involved needs to be congratulated. Jongen's music is seriously neglected worldwide (especially live performances), perhaps less so in his home country. As for Adolphe Samuel, well this is the first time I've come across any of his music.
I have much of Jongen's orchestral music on disc, mainly emanating from European imports. His most well known piece is the terrific Symphonie Concertante Op.81 for organ and orchestra, a work full of exuberant, life-enhancing joy (the Telarc recording is superb). Another piece with the same combination of forces is the Alleluja Op.112; this time we are treated to a six minute span of rarified, calm, unique beauty; a great piece that needs to heard much more (and not just from the confines of an audio recording). Both these pieces have nothing to do with the disc currently being reviewed, apart from the fact that they are by Jongen. Nonetheless, I feel eager and obliged to sing their praises. It is a pleasure to report that the Three Symphonic Movements measure up extremely well in such exalted company, and can be wholly recommended on this outing. The first movement strikes me as one of Jongen's best creations, with its mood of beautiful, song-like radiance and perfectly judged orchestration (listen to the exquisite woodwind writing/playing in particular). The two other movements combine the best of Jongen's trademark rhythmic virtuosity allied to paragraphs of extended memorable melody. I cannot recommended this recording more highly.
I don't mean to be altogether dismissive about Adolphe Samuel's 6th Symphony, but it does not strike me as being a major musical discovery, one to which I will return to often. On the other hand it does exceed my initial expectations (I had heard a few clips from it before buying). Much of the problem lies in its lack of thematic distinction, although the orchestration is sound and ingratiating. No problems with the work's construction either as this follows the well-tried traditions of sonata form in an expert way. No, it's the lack of memorable ideas that disappoints here. The movement I warm to most is the finale, as this embodies a spirit of virile optimism which is similar to that contained within the corresponding movement of the masterful, though inexplicably neglected, Symphony In A Minor Op.24 by Louis Vierne. Ultimately though, perhaps more of Jongen's orchestral music would have proved a more enticing proposition to fill the disc.
Good immediate sound set in a church-like acoustic complements an essential acquisition for all lovers of Jongen's wonderful music.
on 19 May 2014
We can dispense with the Adolphe Samuel symphony fairly quickly. Inspired by some major events of the Biblical Adam & Eve story, it's a rather derivative piece that sounds like a cross between Cesar Franck and Richard Wagner. The fact that it came along in the early 1890s means that many others had already "been there and done that." While not objectionable in any way, the music won't stick in your memory for long, except possibly the second movement (Eden), which has a really rich French horn solo that's subsequently taken up by the other woodwinds. In this movement in particular, Cesar Franck is never far away, and you almost expect to hear organ strains play out (though they never actually materialize).
For me, the real reason to purchase this recording is for another piece that "looks back" -- but in this case with such inspiration that it's a worthwhile and memorable listening experience. The "Three Symphonic Movements" by Joseph Jongen was the last orchestral piece written by this composer (it was completed in 1951, just two years before his death). From the very first measures, you will instantly recognize the music's style as being in the same vein as this composer's justly famous "Symphonie Concertante" for organ and orchestra, written a quarter century before.
Here's a case where I'm very grateful that a composer's musical style didn't "evolve," because in Jongen's case, his very special (and unique) sound-world -- a kind of muscular, rhythmic impressionism -- is an absolute joy to hear, with musical inventiveness throughout. One really can't get enough of it.
In the years before and after Jongen's one true "hit," he was to pen a number of other highly effective if far less well-known works that I find highly engaging, including concertos for piano, cello and harp. The Suite #3 for Orchestra is also a very compelling composition. These compositions look south and west to Paris and the Mediterranean, rather than the Samuel symphony which looks more easterly to Weimar, Bayreuth and Berlin.
The "Three Symphonic Movements" on this recording has a similar high level of inspiration as these other works. It consists of a Nocturne that sets a mystical mood (with some ravishing passages for the clarinet punctuated by trademark "Jongenian" horn-calls and whole-tone harmonies that no other composer quite matches). This is followed by a "dance" movement that begins delicately enough, but soon segues into passages that are exciting and full of vitality, ending in a tremendous climax.
Barely giving the listener a chance to breathe, hard on its heels comes the Toccata movement in which Jongen pulls out all the stops, so to speak -- just as he did in his Toccata movement from the "Symphonie Concertante." It's as if the composer is wrapping up his final orchestral composition with a reprise of his biggest concert hall hit: a specialty that's fresh-yet-reminiscent of what made Jongen more than just an "also-ran" composer (at least in my book).
This recording features the highly effective interpretations of Martyn Brabbins conducting one of his current "official" orchestras, the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Maestro Brabbins is a wonderful exponent of the late-Romantic and early Modern concert hall repertoire, having done some superlative recordings featuring British composers such as Cyril Scott (on Chandos), late-Romantic concertos and symphonies (on Hyperion), as well as lesser-known Dutch and Belgian repertoire with the Royal Flemish ensemble (such as the "Heroic Symphony" by Mortelmans). Here, the RFP sounds in fine form -- polished, warm and silky -- and the sound quality is more than acceptable. (The recording venue sounds a bit more resonant than I normally encounter in recordings, which might be problematic for some listeners, but personally, it doesn't bother me.)
This recording notches five stars on the basis of the Jongen work alone, which I believe is its premiere.