vrijdag 30 december 2011
Jongen: Symphonie Concertante
The Symphonie Concertante was his most ambitious work and it was written when he had achieved full maturity as a composer. Although the work is seen as one of the most important written for organ and orchestra, it is not widely known nowadays. The Liège Orchestra recorded it in recent years for the Cypres Label with Olivier Latry at the keyboards. This is still available. A Telarc recording with Michael Murray and the SFSO has disappeared from the catalogue. A similar fate befel the much lauded 1960s recording for Capitol with Virgil Fox as soloist and George Prêtre leading the French national opera orchestra. And so has vanished the version I listened to with the Dallas SO led by Eduardo Mata. It is, perhaps, strange to see this fringe work taken up by top US orchestras but this is a brilliant score that certainly matches the American penchant for the monumental and the grandiloquent.
What also may play a role is the fact that the work was originally commissioned for the inauguration of the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ at the eponymous department store in Philadelphia. Retail tycoon Rodney Wanamaker had the organ expanded to being the biggest pipe organ in the world and at this point it still is the largest operational organ anywhere. It is a testimony to Jongen's stellar reputation as an organist that he was eligible for this kind of prestigious commission. However, because of the passing away of Jongen's father and Wanamaker's himself in 1928, the work ended up being played on the organ for which it was intended only in 2008, on the occasion of Macy's 150th anniversary (this live recording is still available). The actual premiere of Jongen's work took place in Brussels.
The Symphonie Concertante is cast in a fairly conservative idiom and structure. There are four movements: the propulsive first movement (an Allegro in the Dorian Mode) is conceived in a loose sonata structure based on two rhytmically contrasting themes. The scherzo-like Divertimento plays out a playful, will-o'-the-wisp theme against a more stolid, hymn-like melody. The Lento misterioso (at 12 minutes also the longest movement) is a beautifully translucent meditation. Finally, a brilliant Toccata seemingly makes the orchestra burst out in loud laugh salvos. The work ends with a stupendous peroration supported by shattering brass fanfares. It must be petrifying to experience this in a live performance!
All in all the work lasts around 35 minutes. Whilst the musical language is not particularly innovatory, it is not epigonal either. The influence of Franck, Wagner and Debussy has been very skillfully blended into a colourful late-romantic palette. The most conspicuous influence is maybe Marcel Dupré but it is hard to say who influenced whom as Dupré's Symphonie for Orchestra and Organ op. 25 was signed off a year after the Jongen was premiered. I have heard Dupré's compelling, massive and somberly tinted work on a Telarc recording with Michael Murray. Both compositions have quite a bit in common, not in the least a supremely lyrical and flowing slow movement. Contrary to, for example, Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony where the instrument is more seamlessly embedded in the orchestral fabric, both Jongen and Dupré use the organ in a more differentiated way: as a concerto solo instrument, a "section" within the orchestra, and as a background accompaniment for orchestral instruments. Jongen's Symphonie Concertante is a genuinely inspired composition, testifying of considerable compositional powers and a brilliant skill in bringing these two sonic universes (the 'pope' and the 'emperor') together.
The performance with Jean Guillou at the The Lay Family Concert Organ (built by the American company C.B. Fisk) at the Meyerson Symphony Center and Mata conducting the Dallas SO is very successful it seems to me. From what I hear from comparing the Dallas recording with the Telarc version on YouTube, is that the latter has more drive and a more brilliantly recorded organ which may or may not be a good thing depending on taste. The Dorian recording provided considerable listening pleasure. Another interesting discovery.