Jongen: Violin Concerto (CD review)

Also, Fantasia; Adagio symphonique. Lazzari: Rapsodie. Philippe Graffin, violin; Martyn Brabbins, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Hyperion CDA68005.

This album is the eighteenth installment in the Hyperion Records "Romantic Violin Concerto" series and headlines the Violin Concerto in B minor by Belgian organist, composer, and music teacher Joseph Jongen (1873-1953). If you're not too familiar with Jongen or his violin concerto, you may understand why it took eighteen volumes in Hyperion's violin series to get to him.

Modern audiences probably know Jongen best for his organ works, his Symphonie Concertante for organ and orchestra among the most-popular things he did. On the other hand, his Violin Concerto in B minor, which he wrote in 1899, didn't see publication or a public performance until 1914, where after it fell into neglect. Its next performance wasn't until 1930, but it didn't attract any serious attention until 1938, nearly four decades after its composition. Then, people started taking notice of it, and critics of the time recognized that it might be pretty good after all. Is it possible that at the time of its first performance, audiences were already beginning to shy away from Romantic concertos and leaning more to the emerging Modernism? Was Jongen's timing just off? More in a moment. The main thing is that the piece is finally getting a little more recognition with this Hyperion recording from violinist Philippe Graffin, conductor Martyn Brabbins, and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic.

Incidentally, for those of you unfamiliar with the soloist or conductor, Mr. Graffin is a French violinist (b. 1964) with a reputation for championing forgotten or original settings of concertos by Faure, Chausson, Ravel, Coleridge-Taylor, and others. His speciality is Romantic French repertoire, playing on a Domenico Busano violin made in Venice in 1730. Maestro Brabbins is the Chief Conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic and the Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Both men have been active in Hyperion's "Romantic Violin Concerto" series since the outset of the project in 1999.

Anyway, about the Jongen Violin Concerto and the present performance of it: The opening movement, the longest of the three at about eleven minutes, is somewhat severe in its straightlaced seriousness, and if one had to judge the entire concerto simply from this start, one could understand the reticence of early audiences to embrace it. It also suffers from a certain lack of direction and no really big tune to latch onto. Nevertheless, there is a pleasant lyricism that emerges from time to time that anticipates the more sweetly flowing second-movement Adagio. Meanwhile, Graffin and company appear to do their utmost to give the music its due, even if a good part of it is a tad too melodramatic for its own good.

It is, in fact, in the Adagio that Jongen scores his best points, although it still tends to wander aimlessly too often. Graffin's solo playing throughout seems effortless, and he brings a gentle persuasion to the second movement that I found charming.

Philippe Graffin
Jongen marks the finale Animé, and certainly Graffin and his supporting players handle it in an appropriately animated style. The music here is big and lush and rhythmic, although it also seems more disjointed than it does melodic or coherent, running as it does from one subject to another. Still, Brabbins and the orchestra seem able to hold it all together and perhaps make more of it than is actually there, while Graffin takes the solo passages and helps make them soar.

So, I asked earlier if audiences in 1914 hadn't given the concerto short shrift, and I'm still not sure. Maybe they were looking for something less overtly Romantic, yet they embraced Rachmaninov's music at the time, as Romantic as any. Maybe they just wanted something more individualistic and memorable.

Coupled with the concerto we find Jongen's Fantasia in E major and his Adagio symphonique in B major, along with Sylvio Lazzari's Rhapsodie in E minor. Of these three, I enjoyed the Fantasia, one of Jongen's earliest pieces, most of all for the soaring beauty of its line. Graffin manages it with an expressive purity that does justice to the music's songlike simplicity. Jongen's Adagio symphonique was a touch too sentimental for my taste without being really as touching as might have been. That's no reflection on Graffin's performance, by the way, which is as sympathetic as possible.

Finally, there's the Lazzari piece, the Rhapsodie, from 1922. Like Jongen's work, it harks back to a more old-fashioned manner of music making, with plush melodies and dramatic mood swings. One hears in it flashes of Chausson, Saint-Saens, and Gounod, even Rimsky-Korsakov and Wagner. Graffin and his fellow performers carry it out with a suitable dignity and a good deal of sensitive refinement.

Producers Rachel Smith and Simon Perry and recording engineer Ben Connellan made the album at the Muziekgebouw Frits Philips, Eindhoven, Netherlands in July 2013. As usual with Hyperion, we get a warm, natural, nicely detailed sound. It may be a little close for the smooth, warm tone we hear from the orchestra, which might suggest a bit more distance, yet it's a sound that radiates a pleasant acoustic bloom and enough clarity to satisfy most listeners. While I wouldn't call it exactly audiophile, it is rather lifelike, as one might hear an orchestra live from a midway point in the hall.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa