JONGEN: 13 Préludes, Op. 69; 24 Petits Préludes dans tous les tons, Op. 116 – Ivan Ilic, piano – Chandos CHAN 20264 (11/30/22) (75:18) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
The Belgian composer Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) maintained for a considerable time the epithet “a singular success,” limited to the repute he gleaned from his monumental Symphonie Concertante, Op. 81 of 1926, especially inscribed in our memory by the recorded performance, its world premiere, on Capitol Records by organist Virgil Fox and an orchestra led by Georges Pretre. Jongen is, in fact, best known for his organ ouevre. And what of Jongen’s other works of more than 130 opus numbers? Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilic seeks to redress some of the gap in our knowledge with this reading (rec. 9-11 February 2022) of Jongen’s two major sets of preludes, created respectively in 1922 and 1940. Both expansive and learned, these works bear a “programmatic” title that contributes to the intended effect.
The set of 13 Preludes, Op. 69 reflects the influence of Fauré and Ravel, although the Belgian romantic school can never deny the power of Franck and his debts to Bach and the cyclic principle of composition. They are dedicated to Émile Bosquet who gave their première, in 1923. The No. 1 “Inquietude” in E-flat Minor, marked Agitato ma non troppo, exerts a power similar to the Chopin Op. 25/1, with ceaseless 8th note triplets in 5/4 and in hemiola, the right hand quickly rising while the left descends, and then plunging into the depths. An immediate contrast appears in “Nostalgique,” marked Calme in B major, its ostinato on F# reminiscent of Ravel’s Le Gibet from the 1908 Gaspard de la Nuit. Lushly syncopated, the G Major “Pour denser” provides an accented waltz. Ilic’s runs and trills have their moment, and the piece ends pp. More passionate, No. 4 “Tourments” proceeds in C Minor,12/8, Agitato molto, separating the motions of the hands in bravura fashion. Rather experimental in syntax, the No. 5 “Eau tranquille” bestows its calm waters in F Minor over a pedal point. Sixteenth notes in parallel thirds create a gamelan effect. No. 6 bears the title “Appassionato,” Vivace in B-flat Minor, in 6/8 but martial in atmosphere, coasting in triplets against parallel octaves, almost a competition piece.
Something of Richard Strauss inhabits No. 7 “Il etait une fois,” or “Once upon a time,” which, like the finale of Thus Spake Zarathustra, pits B against C and a fermata at its very end. Marked Moderato cantabile in B-flat Major, the dreamy progression offers no bar lines or time signature, only an angular melodic line supported by parallel sixths and chromatic coloration, ending on a dissonance. Josten calls No. 8 “Interlude,” Moderato assai in A Minor. Upper and lower registers conflict and converge, slowing down while still resonating and trilling its coda in a romantic flourish. In cut time, 2/2, the No. 9 “Angoisse” moves Tempestuoso in B-flat Major. This so-called “Anguish” surges most lushly, enjoying Ilic’s pearly, virile approach, a reminiscence of Chopin’s “Ocean” Etude, Op. 25/12. A drastic change of color follows in “Giovinezza,” a celebration of “Youth” in E-flat Major. The music begins in a pastorale mood, 6/8, but the central episode darkens drastically, grandioso, in chords from the treble and then in unison. The last pages contrast high and low registers in what sounds a but like a jazz mediation.
The final triptych opens with the No. 11, “Papillons noirs,” the Black Butterflies fluttering impetuoso in D Minor. Ilic must execute chains of 32nd notes that climb and twist themselves into a chromatic descent. This has become a toccata of no mean demands and emotional extremes, all the while testing the performer’s stamina. The No. 12 “Tendresse,” a gesture of Tenderness is marked Andantino, 4/4, very expressive, in F Major. A sudden interruption of the seeming calm, now in ¾ B-flat Minor, proceeds, Meno mosso, ma agitando, violently syncopated in 16ths and a high right hand, almost Scriabinesque. The music settles, finally, Calmato, returning to a recollection of the opening. As a grand conclusion, we hear “Airs de fête,” an exuberant gesture of festive sounds (a la Liszt) in C Major. The virtuoso sound could easily pass as that of Ravel’s impressionism and love for pentatones, interrupted twice, in E Major (ben cantabile) and in D-flat Major.
The 24 Petits Préludes dans tous les tons were begun in 1940 and (like Bach’s preludes and fugues) circle through all keys, major and minor. Occasionally, Jongen puns on the key centers enharmonically. Arranged in twelve pairs, moving sequentially in thirds, the minor key following the major on the same tonic note, these works reflect Jongen’s affinity for (and mastery of) their free form, as well as demonstrating his mature compositional style. More “characteristic” than the Op. 69 set, these pieces often imitate dances from the 18th century, like “No. 13 in D, “Rigaudon,” and No. 14 in D Minor, “Sarabande.” Several make clear references to Baroque style and Bach, specifically in No. 12 Passacaglia, in the style of Franck, as well.
The majority of these pieces are miniatures, lasting one minute; and even the longer selections, of which there are four, last two minutes. A lovely Preamble in right hand triplets sets the tone in C Major, its color much in the style of Fauré. The No. 4 Aria in G# Minor offers an exotic resonance, not far from Satie. No. 5 is a Canon in E, to be played moderately, without dragging. Ilic imbues the piece with a healthy vigor. No less contrapuntal but more furious in temper, the No. 6 Grave in E Minor forces us to attend. Both the Allegro commodo in D-flat Major (No. 7) and No. 8 Fughetta in C# Minor demonstrate Jongen’s polyphony, colorful and not without a decided wit.
The No. 9 stands out as an “occasional” piece: Étude pour la petite Cécile à l’occasion de sa 3e année, a sparkling celebration of a third birthday. Its immediate contrast, Tristesse, proceeds in A Minor. The lovely Pastorale in F would make anyone’s fine encore. The Rigaudon, No. 13, exerts a marvelous vitality a la Ravel. After the dignified and austere Sarabande in D Minor, Ilic plays Valse mignonne in B-flat Major, close in spirit to salon music by Poulenc. The longest piece to play, the No. 16, Molto espressivo in B Minor, exudes an exotic modality, a gesture as much Koechlin as Ravel.
No. 17, Les Touches noires in F# Major, exerts a studied simplicity. An etude in color, No. 18, Petit ruisseau or “Little Stream,” nods to Liszt and Ravel for its liquid effects in F# Minor. The extroverted prelude in E-flat Major (19) proceeds as Bravura in high J.S. Bach style; the progression has the character of a Bach chorale, only freer in its passing dissonances. No. 20 bears no descriptive title but flows in rich, meditatively dissonant chords for two minutes. Another study in touch, the No. 21 Leggiero in B Major, moves in brisk staccatos and glistening arpeggios like a Bach invention or an anticipatory tribute to the next selection. Scarlattiana in B Minor declares its intentions without pretensions, its combination of imitative effects and clarity of articulation a model of Ilic’s playing. The same qualities announce the bold chords of Toccata-fanfare in G Major, a veritable parade of demands on wrist and finger dexterity. Pour conclure in G Minor, rather slow and expressive, certainly projects a sense of tolled finality. Jongen dates the piece 12 July 1941. The entire opus suggests an extended moment of exalted rationality and poise in the midst of world calamity. Highly recommended.
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