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.
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: