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Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Disc 1 [76:06]
Symphony No. 3 in e minor Op. 13 No. 3 (1872/1887) [17:25]
(i) Prelude, Moderato [7:12]; ii) Adagio [4:09]; iii) Final: Allegro molto [6:04])
Symphony No. 4 in f minor Op. 13 No. 4 (1872/1887/1901) [28:04]
(i) Toccata [2:56]; ii) Fugue: Moderato assai [3:52]; iii) Andante cantabile: Dolce [5:14]; iv) Scherzo: Allegro vivace [6:04]; v) Adagio [5:46]; vi) Finale: Moderato [4:12])
Symphony No. 9 in c minor, Op. 70 Gothique (1890/1894/1895) [26:13]
(i) Moderato [6:07]; ii) Andante sostenuto [5:08]; iii) Allegro [3:54]; iv) Moderato-Allegro-Moderato-Andante [6:57]; v) Finale: Allegro [4:07])
Symphony No. 1 in c minor Op. 13 No. 1 (1872/1887) - Meditation: Lento [4:24]
Disc 2 [70:17]
Symphony No. 6 in g minor Op. 42 No. 2 (1878) [32:07]
(i) Allegro [8:25]; ii) Adagio [7:43]; iii) Intermezzo: Allegro [5:49]; iv) Cantabile [5:07]; v) Finale: Vivace [6:06])
Symphony No. 2 in D major Op. 13 No. 2 (1872/1887) - Finale: Allegro [3:42]
Symphony No. 5 in f minor Op. 42 No. 1 (1879) [34:28]
(i) Allegro vivace [11:00]; ii) Allegro cantabile [7:16]; iii) Andantino quasi allegretto [7:19]; iv) Adagio [5:25]; v) Toccata [5:28])
Marie-Claire Alain (organ)
rec. Eglise de St-Germain-en-Laye, 25-28 November 1977 (symphonies 3,4,6,9), St Etienne, Caen, 1970, (Symphonies 1,2,5). ADD
WARNER APEX 2564 62297-2 [76:06 + 70:17]


I am at present engaged in the translation of a fascinating article about 19th century French organ music by Joris Verdin for publication in the US. Verdin tries in his article to correct some of the 20th century's misunderstandings about 19th century organ culture, attitudes towards the instrument and its music. In it he draws a distinction between the attitudes of Widor and his generation, and the attitudes of Lefébure-Wély and Franck who were products of a church-music culture where the organ was intended as a reminder of the joys of earthly life, a distraction from God. The music played in the mass included the grand offertoires, scherzos, cavatinas, polkas, marches etc.  Widor on the other hand saw, as with the many commentators on church music of the time, (most notably d'Ortigue and Chateaubriand) the organ as the ultimate religious instrument, and the organist as the depictor of the mystic. This distinction is important when one considers that Franck and Lefébure worked in an organ-playing epoch where the organ was seen as any other instrument; as a flexible tool for expressing human emotions. With Widor and his contemporaries this idea becomes superseded, as Verdin says "the technical means came first, the artistic consequences were limited".

In addition it is important to realise that in the course of the ten symphonies, the changing attitude toward liturgical music in the French-speaking world is reflected through the forms and styles used. Two of the first three symphonies contain, in their final versions, marches, the final two symphonies are freer, devoid of the catchy rhythms of Widor's predecessors, and wholly based on gregorian chant.

Widor of course is the great father of the French organ symphony. Franck is often said to have written the first example, but, in truth, the Grand Pièce Symphonique sets the model purely in terms of scale, and not of form.

These recordings are a real puzzle in the context of what I've stated until now. Marie-Claire Alain, recorded thirty+ years ago, delivers extremely rhythmically straight performances, albeit she is a little freer in the slow movements. On the one hand, Alain, one of the most profoundly influential organists of her generation was educated in the Widor tradition, being as she was a student of Marcel Dupré. On the other hand she was at the forefront of the classical revival, as her many Bach recordings, latterly made on historic instruments attest. It is important to realise that the classical movement in France affected also the performance of its symphonic music, and, through the influence of figures such as Norbert Duforque, the instruments on which the music was played. Many beautiful 19th century instruments were lost through his influence.

Which tendency is prominent then in Alain's playing? Are these real recordings in the true Widorian manner of playing? Or a sort of hybrid based on Alain's background but heavily influenced by the ideals of her generation? I suspect the latter is truer in this instance. One of my reasons for this is the curious choice of instrument for the majority of the recordings. The organ at St Germain-en-Laye was originally built by Cavaillé-Coll. Unfortunately I am quite unable to find out anything further about it. On the basis of this recording it must have been severely altered, some thin reeds high mixtured seem unduly prominent. The unspoiled Caen Cavaillé-Coll sounds much finer.

I can't help but come to the conclusion therefore that this doesn't represent the best of Marie-Claire Alain. Whatever the truth of Verdin's convictions, I long for a more monumental instrument, and a more supple and lyrical approach. These rather claustrophobic recordings provide an interesting glimpse into the performance practice of some essential literature a generation ago, but I believe not more than that.

Additionally it is a shame that, despite the budget price, Apex couldn’t have provided more information about the recordings, the instrument and the performer.

Chris Bragg






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