WIDOR Organ Symphonies Nos 5 & 6

Author: 
Malcolm Riley

WIDOR Organ Symphonies Nos 5 & 6

  • Symphony for Organ No. 5
  • Symphony for Organ No. 6

Widor’s 10 organ symphonies have been served well recently. There are splendid complete sets from Joseph Nolan (Signum; five discs, using a new edition) and Ben van Oosten (MDG), both series recorded on authentic 19th-century French instruments, as well as many other distinguished issues of separate works.

This son of Lyon, born (as he put it) ‘in an organ pipe’ in 1844, lived such a long, eventful and fruitful life that he really does deserve the five hours of video and 141 minutes of stunning audio-only performances that are on offer here. His life and work are comprehensively related in a three-part documentary, beautifully filmed by Simon Still under the sensitive direction of his Fugue State Films colleague Will Fraser. Those who have purchased their related previous, crowd-funded releases (on César Franck’s organ music and the instruments of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll) will rejoice in the familiar fastidious craftsmanship and the highest technical and executant standards.

Our primary guide this time is Gerard Brooks, a noted exponent of Romantic French organ repertoire, a distinguished recitalist and sought-after teacher. He gives dramatic (though impeccable) accounts of the Fifth Symphony (in Saint-Ouen, Rouen) and the Sixth (in Orléans Cathedral).

Widor’s current successor at St Sulpice in Paris, Daniel Roth, was filmed live on a Sunday morning, during and after a Mass, playing a selection of movements from the other symphonies. The booklet-note advises that ‘background sounds’ (from the congregation) are audible. Fear not: this simply adds to the evocative ambience and is not a major distraction. It is fascinating to see how Roth teases such coherent and satisfying playing despite the elderly and vulnerable condition of the organ. He is ably assisted at the vast five-manual console by a pair of registrands, complete with ‘pace notes’, in the manner of rally navigators.

As an unlisted bonus, Roth is filmed in improvisatory mood, during the Mass. He also offers several salient opinions in conversation with one of Widor’s biographers, John Near, who is joined by Anne-Isabelle de Parcevaux in providing linking commentaries. Widor’s former 1893 salon organ (now transplanted to a frozen Saint-Rémy in Selongey) is put through its paces by a well-wrapped Carolyn Shuster Fournier, and Brooks makes the most of the (seemingly) modest Cavaillé-Coll in St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough.

Although mention is made of Widor’s chamber and orchestral scores and his great success as a ballet composer (with La korrigane of 1880), this release is primarily focused on his organ music, which accounts for just 10 per cent of his output. The astonishing breadth of his non-musical interests (such as the Institut de France and his responsibilities as permanent secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts) are generously covered. Probably the best-connected French composer of his time, he lived long enough to have known Rossini, Liszt, Wagner and Saint-Saëns, as well as encouraging a huge swathe of French compositional pupils including Varèse, Milhaud, Duruflé, Honegger and Messiaen.

His late marriage in 1920 to Mathilde de Montesquiou-Fézensac, at the age of 76, brought him great joy and companionship. Fittingly, the only photographs of him smiling are with his wife. This first-rate production will probably never be bettered.

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