Widor Organ Symphonies

Author: 
faprahamian

Widor Organ Symphonies

  • Symphony No. 5
  • Symphony No. 6
  • Symphony No. 5
  • Symphony No. 6

An avalanche of Widor! As one who once sat with him on the organ bench at Saint-Sulpice (he was then 89, and I, 19), let me register surprise as well as delight at the prospect of assessing the respective merits of these recent issues. They could never have been dreamt of in the 1930s, when Charles-Marie Widor had already long been a kind of living monument historique, a survivor from the previous century, who, at 19, had known Rossini. True, his Toccata in F was never out of fashion with the public: recorded as a separate number in the days of 78s, it has appeared regularly in organ anthologies since the first LPs. Organists were also faithful to a few other separate movements, but comparatively few LPs of complete symphonies were issued. These recent CDs seem to mark the timely rehabilitation of a composer of paramount importance in the history of organ music. The first eight Symphonies pour orgue were suites rather than true symphonies, yet Widor established there a form that his juniors, notably Vierne, were to develop.
Widor's Fourth Symphony, in F minor like the Fifth, yielded one popular separate movement, the soft and sentimental, song-without-words-like, Andante cantabile. Chaisemartin sets it in context with its five companion movements. Before it, a nobly lumbering opening Toccata and Fugue and, after it, a quiet, long and nimble Mendelssohnian Scherzo. Then another slow movement, Adagio in A flat, to preface the very solid final Toccata in F major. The Paris organ of the Sainte-Trinite familiar from Messiaen's early recordings of his own organ music and from Jennifer Bate's more recent Unicorn-Kanchana discs of his latest, has, of course, the same kind of romantic organ timbre as that of Widor's own instrumental inspiration at Saint-Sulpice. It also enjoys the reverberant acoustics that enhance sounds for ears addicted to organ music. But those who prefer greater clarity and the distinct articulation of every note and chord may find this authentic sound and resonance less easy to appreciate. Exactly the same applies here to the five movements of the finer Sixth Symphony. Its magnificent opening movement (another famous Widor 'separate') sounds only marginally clearer than it did more than half a century ago on Harry Goss-Custard's Liverpool Cathedral HMV recording of it on 78rpm. To follow this music from score is probably a mistake, for a global impression is best, that of an enveloping sound and resonance, in which the listener is immersed seems more important than recognition and assessment of every detail.
Again the same applies to the Fifth and Tenth Symphonies played at Saint-Sulpice by Daniel Roth, the present incumbent of Widor's post. The initial Variations begin at too leisurely a tempo for Allegro vivace but build up steadily to a magnificent climax. Tie mellifluous Allegro cantabile provides a reminder that the Recit division on a Cavaille-Coll organ is no real match for the Grand Orgue. The Saint-Sulpice Recit is high and remote, almost an echo division, so that the haunting tune (which Chaminade must have remembered when she composed her piano Automne) is dwarfed by its accompaniment. The least-heard third movement justifies itself in the golden sounds that inspired it, as does the rapt two-page Adagio and the Toccata, dazzling as ever in its proper context, and on the organ for which it was written.
This coupling of the Fifth Symphony (still the best known, though the Sixth is catching up) with the Tenth, and last, is of especial interest, for Widor's organ-writing reached its highest point in the Romane, providing a model of harmonic spacing and balanced texture. Roth's performance leaves no doubt of his genuine feeling for the music of his distinguished precursor. The message of the Romane is not nearly so obvious as that of the Fifth or Sixth, but this account will surely win it new friends. A pity that the note in the booklet makes nonsense, for it gets the organ wrong (Saint-Ouen, instead of Saint-Sulpice) and describes the wrong symphony (Gothique, instead of Romane).
Right from the outset, the coupling by Gunter Kaunzinger of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies offers a complete contrast, for his Variations of the Fifth begin louder, faster and with more rhythmic bounce. This informs much of what follows. After Roth's seemingly more committed approach throughout, Kaunzinger's sounds rather brash, sometimes scrambled and mechanical, making the fast movements more aggressive than they need to be. The slow movements fare better. The Toccata is predictably, brilliant and inexorable, and high virtuosity informs the outer movements of the Sixth—but the relentlessness tends to pall. I miss the atmospheric authenticy of Saint-Sulpice, though this German coupling may be appreciated as a vivid organ recording.
Now for comparisons with previous issues. Of all those listed above, the CD I would be most reluctant to part with is the Chorzempa coupling of the Fifth and Tenth Symphonies (Philips). It still strikes me as near exemplary on all counts: the organ, recording and playing. The Cavaille-Coll instrument at Saint-Sernin (Toulouse) has no less authentic a sound than Widor's own at Saint-Sulpice, and its halo of cathedral resonance does not preclude clarity: every note and chord is clearly spaced and articulated. The recording is obviously closer, though even here the Recit oboe tune of the Allegro cantabile is hardly a match for its accompaniment. Otherwise, not only is the organ and recorded sound ideal, but Chorzempa's interpretative genius informs both symphonies. The Fifth Symphony is played thrillingly, while the Romane, which does not so readily yield its secrets seems played con amore, with an inner conviction. I would not look elsewhere for a better realization of either work.
David Hill's excellent account of the Fifth Symphony (Hyperion) does as much justice to it as can be done at Westminster Cathedral. With its vast dynamic range, the organ there is no more Cavaille-Coll than Klais. It scores, curiously enough, with the only version of the Allegro cantabile in which the oboe tune sounds properly in the foreground. After the rarely-heard Mystique, one of Widor's last compositions, the final fill-up is the Marche pontificale from the First Symphony, a piece Marcel Dupre played there for the procession when the organ was inaugurated in 1922. The recorded sound is gargantuan. The ever-reliable Marie-Claire Alain (Erato/RCA), who plays classical and romantic organ music with equal taste and authority, uses two Cavaille-Coll organs: Orleans Cathedral, for the Toccata as an exciting curtain-raiser to the Gothique and Sixth Symphonies played at her family church of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. With its clarity, fine timbre, resonance and atmosphere, this disc, like the Chorzempa, offers model performances and is still one to be prized.'

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