Close contemporaries, Koechlin and Jongen have not received their due, although the Frenchman, Jongen was Belgian, has, in recent years, had some re–evaluation of his works, especially some astonishing orchestral pieces. In 1997 the BBC gave a week of programmes devoted to Koechlin, which included the UK première of his large-scale orchestral work, Le Docteur Fabricius, and that’s probably the biggest, single, exposition of his work in this country since his death. His output was prodigious, in all forms, and, as with so many composers who had a facility for rapid composition, his very catalogue has militated against him. However, unlike many, there appears to be no dross, as opposed to someone like Martinu, or Cyril Scott, who wrote too much and too uncritically.
The Viola Sonata is a big four-movement work, with a scherzo placed second, surrounded by more contemplative music, as befits the instrument. In some ways it’s an elegiac piece, but the voice of the viola almost always commands just such a feeling. For an instrument whose solo repertoire is still small, compared to the violin and cello, I am amazed that this work is unknown. What it doesn’t have is either the range, or the colour, of the contemporaneous Oboe Sonata, op.58 (1913/1916), but even so, this is a work which deserves to be heard, and heard in public. Now that we have finally got to grips with Rebecca Clarke’s fine Sonata perhaps players will take this work to their hearts. Interestingly, it’s dedicated to Milhaud, a composer whom we seldom, if ever, think of as a performer on any instrument. But he must have been some violist, for he took part in the première of Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp.
The Quatres Petites Pièces, for viola, horn and piano, more often played with violin, thus making it a nice adjunct to the Brahms and Ligeti Horn Trios, wasn’t conceived as a set. The four pieces were only collected together as recently as 1974. Musically, they are unobtrusive but very delightful, rather like a soufflé.
I have to admit that although I know the name of Joseph Jongen, I have never heard any of his music. I always thought of him in relation to the organ and was amazed to find that he wrote in all genres, and his opus numbers reach 241! Jongen’s language is less flavoured, more conventional, than Koechlin’s but don’t let that thought put you off, for these four works are strong in character and are more than a makeweight for Koechlin’s loftier thoughts. Introduction et danse would be a very welcome addition to the viola’s concert repertoire.
The performances are of the very highest standard, and the recorded sound is very clear. It has lots of presence – even if the performers are a little way from the microphone. The presentation, in a gatefold sleeve, is attractive and the notes, in English, French and German, are very good. All in all, a very desirable issue.