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Camille Saint-saens, Joseph Jongen: Quatuors Avec Piano

Saint-saens / Jongen / Quatuor Gabriel
Release Date: 09/11/2012 
Label:  Anima Records (Classical)   Catalog #: 81100002   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Camille Saint-SaënsJoseph Jongen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Quatuor Gabriel
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 15 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SAINT-SAËNS Piano Quartet No. 2 in Bb, op. 41. JONGEN Piano Quartet in Eb, op. 23 Qrt Gabriel ANIMA RECORDS ANM/081100002 (74:57)

Here is a really beautiful disc, half of which contains the rarely heard Piano Quartet by Joseph Jongen. So seldom is it recorded that both Amazon and ArkivMusic show only one other listing for it, with the Ensemble Joseph Jongen on a Cypres Read more CD. Moreover, the work seems to be so little known that details of its composition and publication are in dispute. The album note gives its composition and publication dates as 1901 and 1902 respectively, while imslp.org, which makes the full score available online, gives the composition date as 1901 with a question mark after it, and credits its first publication to A. Durand et Fils of Paris in 1909. On top of that, the listing of the Cypres disc at ArkivMusic misidentifies the key; Mi bémol majeur is Eb-Major, not Eb-Minor which, if that’s what it really was, would be one of the most hideous keys imaginable for strings: six flats. I checked the score to verify the key: three flats, Eb Major.

But it gets worse. The very program note to this Anima CD designates Saint-Saëns’s Piano Quartet as being in Bb Minor, an almost equally hideous key for strings, when in fact it’s in Bb Major. And the note goes ever farther afield with the Jongen, designating it not only as being in the Minor mode, but as being in E Minor instead of Eb-Major, one sharp instead of three flats. And here I thought that anyone who writes about music at least knows how to read it; silly me.

Actually, the album notes—at least the English translation thereof—are a mess. If the name of a translator weren’t given, I’d think the notes were the result of the original French being run through one of those universal machine translators.

Joseph Jongen (1873–1953) is most readily identified as a composer of organ music, but even his once popular blockbuster Symphonie concertante, op. 81, and Db-Major Toccata, op. 104, seem to have dwindled in the listings. The Belgian-born Jongen, like Franck, was one of the many Franco-Belgian composers we tend to associate today, rightly or wrongly, with the revitalization of French organ building and organ music in the latter half of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th. But Jongen was not really one of their fellow travelers.

It’s true that Jongen spent some time traveling through Europe in his 20s after winning the Prix de Rome in 1897, and it was during his travels that he met Vincent d’Indy in Paris. That’s where Jongen composed the piano quartet, dedicating it to d’Indy. But he then returned to Belgium in 1902 to take up the post of professor of harmony and counterpoint at the conservatory in his hometown of Liege, where he remained until the outbreak of World War I. At the start of the war, Jongen exiled himself and his family to England, but again returned to Belgium at war’s end. Except for his brief interlude in Paris and his time in England, Jongen was a loyal Belgian through and through. He was trained in Belgium, was appointed a professor at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels upon his return home after the war, eventually becoming the school’s director, and Belgium is where he died. He never became involved with the circle of organ composers centered in Paris.

When one peruses Jongen’s work list, it becomes apparent that his interest in the organ was really secondary to his interest in chamber music. In fact, while in England, he founded a piano quartet, which makes it all the more odd that his chamber works haven’t received more attention.

The Piano Quartet, whatever its exact date of composition, is a massive work on a grand scale, spanning over 45 minutes. The music reminds me a great deal of the C-Minor Piano Trio by Guillaume Lekeu, another Belgian composer born just three years before Jongen. Lekeu died tragically young, just one day after his 24th birthday, so it’s unlikely he would have heard any of Jongen’s works, which mostly came after Lekeu’s death. But it is likely that Jongen would have heard some of Lekeu’s works, and both men were strongly influenced by d’Indy and Wagner.

Despite its foreboding introductory Largo , the mood of Jongen’s piano quartet soon brightens to a mostly sunny, cheerful sounding Animé . The second movement Assez Vite is about as close as you can get to a Mendelssohn scherzo without it being by Mendelssohn. The long slow movement (13 minutes), marked Pas trop lent , is a delicately scented daydream, but with occasional interventions that sound like they escaped from one of the slow fugues in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier , evidence, no doubt, of Jongen’s passion for counterpoint. Late in the movement, a brief upwelling of more turbulent waters surfaces, but it subsides quickly and harmlessly as the placid mood is re-established. The last movement, Assez animé , is all liquid sunshine, the head on an amber Belgian ale, and a hint of Debussy.

Saint-Saëns wrote two piano quartets, a student work in E Major without opus number when he was 18, and this 1875 work when he was 40. That’s young, considering that he lived to the ripe age of 86. The Bb-Major Piano Quartet hasn’t had much more exposure on disc than the Jongen has, but of the few recordings it has had, it has been extremely lucky, with fine performances by the Nash Ensemble, the Mozart Piano Quartet, the Ames Piano Quartet, and the Prometheus Piano Quartet. The current one by the Gabriel Quartet can join them with its collective head held high.

The ensemble was formed in 1988 by four prizewinners of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, and all four players are still together. If you should happen to purchase this disc, you can ignore the given website address for the group; it’s just another screw-up in the printed notes. The web address I found that actually works is gabrielq.pagesperso-orange.fr/index3.htm, and from there you can select the English link, which will take you to bios of the individual players—François Sochard, violin; Marc Desmons, viola; Renaud Guieu, cello; and Yoko Kaneko, piano. Unfortunately, there’s no link to the ensemble’s existing discography, though the album note tells us they have previously recorded works by Chausson, Lekeu, Fauré (the group’s namesake), A. Dvoral (sic), and R. Hahn. Not surprisingly, I was unable to find any of these discs at ArkivMusic or Amazon’s U.S. site, but they do turn up at Amazon France.

Such a fine-sounding ensemble as the Gabriel Quartet deserves a much wider audience. While the group hasn’t shied away from mainstream Austro-German repertoire, its main diet is the French piano quartet literature. You might even say it’s the Gabriel’s specialty, and so the playing is refined and subtly shaded in ways that perfectly suit this French music. The Jongen was a particular treat for me, having never heard it before; and with the piano quartet repertoire being much more sparsely populated than that of the piano trio, it’s good to have such a major and beautiful contribution to the genre. An excellent release all around, and easily recommended to all chamber-music enthusiasts.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Piano and Strings in B flat major, Op. 41 by Camille Saint-Saëns
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Quatuor Gabriel
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1875; France 
Venue:  Salle de Musique, La Chaux de Fonds, Swi 
Length: 29 Minutes 2 Secs. 
Quartet for Piano and Strings in E flat minor, Op. 23 by Joseph Jongen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Quatuor Gabriel
Period: 20th Century 
Written: Belgium 
Venue:  Salle de Musique, La Chaux de Fonds, Swi 
Length: 45 Minutes 9 Secs. 

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