Most serious music lovers will know the names of these two composers, but in very different contexts. Charles Kœchlin is probably best remembered for being Poulenc’s only “serious” composition teacher (Wilfred Mellers in his 1993 book on Poulenc for Oxford University Press describes Kœchlin as “that great contrapuntalist and apostle of French civilization”) while Joseph Jongen is one of the more popular of early 20th-century composers for the organ. One can’t hear in the music on this disc much of whatever it was that Kœchlin passed on to Poulenc, and Jongen’s idiomatic feel for the combination of viola and piano shows no hint of the pseudo-orchestral grandness of sound which makes his organ music so distinguished; and, ironically, somewhat less than idiomatic for the instrument.
Melba, an impressive Australian label whose discs are marked by exceptional elegance of design and packaging, top-notch recordings and innovative programming, are not for the first time showing us that the accepted wisdom about some composers is, in fact, appalling ignorance. They did it with Vierne (another composer usually regarded as the exclusive property of organists) when they issued Turbulent Heart, a disc of his orchestral songs which, in my view, knocked his organ music into the sidelines, and they’ve done it again here.I love Jongen’s organ music; but on the evidence put forward so eloquently by Roger Benedict and Timothy Young, I am now inclined to love his chamber music rather better. The Concertino is as richly expressive and full-blooded a work as exists in the entire viola repertoire, Jongen elegantly exploiting its warm middle register and tense upper register in music that is at times passionate, at times introspective, often vaguely impressionistic, but always beautifully constructed and presenting as cogent a musical argument as it does an expressive one. The three other pieces by him are equally assured, and it is hard to imagine more compelling advocates of this repertoire than Benedict and Young; not least in the haunting and spellbindingly beautiful Introduction et danse.
The major work on the disc is undoubtedly Kœchlin’s 30-minute Sonata. The viola/piano repertoire is not sufficiently well endowed with worthwhile music to allow works of this quality to pass under the radar, and if nothing else Benedict and Young are to be praised for bringing this to our attention. But they have done much more than that. They have brought to this music their own powerful stamp of individuality, producing duo playing of exceptional unity, the frequent and often subtle nuances of tempo and dynamic perfectly balanced, and with a visionary sense of architecture which ensures that Kœchlin’s often quite complex ideas are laid out for us with simplicity of expression and clarity of thought.
The much shorter group of four Petites Pièces introduces yet another mellow colour, the horn, in an intriguing and relatively uncommon ensemble. Here is some of the most unambiguously lovely music on the disc – I find it difficult to move on from the deliciously fluid second piece without continually reaching for the repeat button – and with Ben Jacks a singularly sensitive and smooth-toned hornist, there is a wonderfully snug feel to the whole ensemble. There are balance issues, as inevitably there must be with the horn being such a potential dominating presence, but the Melba engineers have sensibly left them alone, allowing these three outstanding musicians to present the music precisely as we assume Kœchlin intended.