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Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844 - 1937)
Organ Symphony No.3 in E Minor, Op.13/3 (excerpts) Prelude, Adagio and Finale (1872 rev. 1872, 1887, 1901, 1927)
Organ Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.13/4 (1876)
Organ Symphony No.9 in C minor, Op.70 The Gothic (1895)
Marie-Claire Alain (organ)
The organ of the Eglise St. Germain, St. Germain-en-Laye, Nov 1977. ADD
WARNER ELATUS 2564 60341-2 [71í50"]

 

Widorís Organ Symphonies are always a difficult fit for the CD medium. One disc is too long for two symphonies and three will not go unless the organist is fleet of foot, and there are no repeats.

Warner seems to have achieved a compromise here by issuing two complete symphonies and excerpts from a third to make one very well filled disc. They have a trump card up their sleeves by entrusting these works to that doyen of French organists Ė the wonderful Marie-Claire Alain, plus they have used a Cavaillé-Coll instrument, the instrument of favour for these works by the composer.

Although the recordings are not totally up to date they are of excellent analogue quality. The Erato engineers have contained the immense power of this organ on to the disc with consummate skill. The hero, or should I say heroine, of this whole enterprise is Marie-Claire Alain. She gives accurate performances of all 2Ĺ works, and what is more, they are in the correct idiom as outlined by the composer. In addition to writing these and many other works for organ, Widor spent much time as an influential teacher who believed in the use of the legato touch and inflexible rhythm. Originally I thought that there was a little rhythmical sameness about these performances but discovered that this is probably due to the soloist following Widorís own beliefs on how his works should be played. Full marks to the organist for historical accuracy.

Most readers will be very well aware of how the Toccata from the Fifth Symphony has been lifted out of context, and is often used at weddings, or as an encore to organ recitals and other such events. This has caused Widorís Organ symphonies to become relatively unknown but as with other works of similar composers this does not mean that the works here should be ignored. Widorís 10 Organ Symphonies are superb examples of the organ composerís art. All of these symphonies can hold their heads up in the company of other more famous romantic organ pieces, those of César Franck for example. Their relative obscurity can be put down to a number of factors including Widorís prime activity which led him to be known as organist at Saint-Sulpice in Paris and this at the tender age of 24. There he succeeded Lefébure-Wély as principal organist. Later, he became an influential and somewhat frosty teacher.

His first four symphonies were published between 1876 and 1879. He was writing these substantial works long before his perhaps more famous contemporaries were active in the field. For example César Franck did not produce his chorales until 1890 although his early Trois Pièces pour orgue appeared between 1878 and 1879.

Widor must therefore be seen as a 19th Century composer well ahead of his time. He certainly deserves his place as an early member of the French school of organ composers who were busy fashioning the history of organ music. This is generally not accepted largely because of his career as a teacher; this coupled with the fact that he lived well past the age that an early composer might have been accepted to have lived. Widorís influences on the techniques of organ playing were immense. He combined the manual dexterity of the French with the nimble pedal technique of the Germans. He was aided and abetted in this by his close relationship with Cavaillé-Coll, the organ builder. A whole school and style of playing developed in France as a result of these activities. Enthusiastically recommended.

John Phillips

 



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