Joseph Jongen (1873-1953)
13 Preludes, Op. 69 (1922)
24 Petits Préludes dans tous les tons, Op. 116 (1940-41)
Ivan Ilić (piano)
rec. 2022, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk.
Reviewed as a WAV download
CHANDOS CHAN20264 
Joseph Jongen is one of those composers who is appreciated by musicians with taste and curiosity, but who people might have heard of without knowing much about his music. Jongen was never an avant-garde enfant-terrible, though there is a quote in the booklet to this release in which his appreciation of Stravinsky is clearly apparent. A native of Belgium and brilliant as a musician from an early age, Jongen was winning awards, travelling widely and mixing with the likes of d’Indy, Fauré and Florent Schmitt by his 20s, in part as the result of winning the Belgian Prix de Rome in 1895. Those interested in seeking further should certainly hear his Symphonie Concertante, Op. 81 for organ and orchestra, and his chamber music is always of the highest quality. If you like the atmosphere of Claude Debussy and César Franck then you are in the right place with this recording.
The ambitious Treize Préludes can be seen as part of a move towards a more mature phase in Jongen’s composing, with less of the influence of Ravel than can be heard in some earlier works with piano. Each prelude has an individual descriptive title and each can be heard as a musical world unto itself, yet the sequence also has a sense of progression and balance. Stylistic gestures from French music are in evidence, and there is plenty of virtuosity in pieces such as ‘Angoisse’ or ‘anguish’, the Prelude No. 9, with its “wave of surging semiquavers”. These are all enjoyable works and by no means hard to appreciate, but there is plenty of substance here as well. Psychological darkness is never very far away, and Jongen’s romantic idiom is refreshingly free of sentimentality, even where his melodies are at their most expressive, such as in Prelude No. 12, Tendresse.
The Vingt-quatre Petits Préludes dans tous les tons, Op. 116 are arranged so that the key relationships make up pairs of related tonalities, from a major to a parallel minor key. With an equal quality of colourful variety to the Op. 69 set, there is also a continuity of style even though these collections are separated by nearly two decades. There is no hint of the turmoil of war, and this later collection is in fact lighter and more carefree than the earlier one. These pieces rarely go over two minutes in duration and certainly have pedagogical value, with technical exercises such as Canon and Fughetta adventures into counterpoint, lyrically expressive lines in the right hand, Les Touches noires working the black keys, and others having references to 18th century dance forms. This set is highly effective and musically satisfying in every regard, and you can just sit back and enjoy Ivan Ilić’s stylish and characterful playing without needing to know much about the academic roots of these Petits Préludes.
I’ve had a look around, but aside from some downloadable recordings there doesn’t appear to be much competition in this repertoire. Joseph Jongen’s complete piano music has appeared on the Pavane Records label with respectable performances by Diane Andersen released in 2003, though Ivan Ilić has a better sounding instrument and more refined musicality in general. The tried and trusted Potton Hall acoustic is perfect for this music, allowing for a nice amount of air around the piano but not being too lively for all of those hard-won rhythmic details and subtleties of nuance. Ivan Ilić’s championing of less well-known piano music is much appreciated, and long may his fruitful alliance with the Chandos label continue.
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