They say that on a
clear day you can see Lincoln Cathedral
from the top of York Minster's central
tower. I am not sure that the converse
is the case as Lincoln is built on a
hill and York lies on a plain. Yet it
is a nice thought. It was more than
forty years ago, in 1961 that the Duke
and Duchess of Kent were married at
York Minster and had Widor's Toccata
played by Dr Francis Jackson as
the concluding voluntary. Ever since,
brides have been partial to this ‘war
horse’ and it has become exceptionally
popular. How many times has it been
played on an inadequate organ with an
equally baffled organist? Of course
the down-side is that the Toccata
is now totally divorced from its context
and has become a favourite for CD compilations
and classical radio stations.
And of course here
lies the problem. It applies to the
Finale of the 6th
Symphony as well. Compilers of organ
music CDs have long regarded these two
works as being essential pot-boilers.
A brief look at the catalogue shows
some 49 versions of the ‘famous’ Toccata
presently available. This compares to
just ten recordings of the complete
5th Symphony. The
6th Symphony is even
less well served with only eight recordings.
Yet listen to Classic FM or hunt around
the CDs in W. H. Smith or even the smaller
HMV shops and you would be forgiven
for thinking that Widor only ever penned
The facts are very
different. There are some eleven organ
symphonies in the composer’s catalogue
if we include the numbered works and
the Symphonie Latine. Yet how
many of these are in the repertoire
of organists? How many recordings are
easily available in ‘good music shops?’
I have often been accused
of musical snobbishness when I eschew
listening to single movements of Widor
- or Vierne and Guilmant - I accept
that when a piece is used as a voluntary
after Mass or at a wedding that we cannot
expect the entire Symphony. But when
it is given in the context of a concert
I would like to think that the entire
work would be played. It seems to me
unfair to excerpt movements from these
great monuments to French organ music.
Would we be happy to attend a recital
at the Wigmore Hall and hear selected
movements from Beethoven’s String Quartets
or Mozart Piano Sonatas? I think not.
And this brings me
to the present CD. We are lucky to have
been presented with two of the greatest
Organ Symphonies in the repertoire.
Colin Walsh approaches these two master
works with considerable experience and
understanding. He is a passionate advocate
of Romantic French organ music. And
to this enthusiasm he brings both a
superb technical ability and a fine
understanding of organ registration.
I listened to both these works with
the score in front of me and I was impressed
by the inventiveness and sometimes sheer
ingenuity of his registrations and his
interpretation of dynamics.
But the most vital
aspect of Walsh’s playing is his approach
to these works as unified structures.
So often we hear movements from these
symphonies played singly. But the genius
of Widor was his ability to create a
huge organic work. From the first note
to the last of both these great symphonies
every note counts and the moods of the
individual movements build up into something
much bigger that the whole. Walsh is
able to provide both the unity and the
balance between the movements and even
the sections within those movements.
And of course the organ
helps the performance. The instrument
at Lincoln Cathedral was originally
built by Father Henry Willis in 1898.
Some 100 years later it was renovated
and enlarged by Harrison & Harrison.
There are 64 speaking stops along with
a myriad of couplers and solid state
There are a number
of versions of the Widor 5th
and 6th Symphonies.
I have usually plumped for Ben van Oosten
playing on a Cavaillé-Coll organ.
But I am so impressed by this CD that
I would have to recommend it to anyone
who wishes to explore this unbelievably
exciting and equally beautiful music.
It is difficult to
point out highlights – but I would have
to suggest the gorgeous ‘Cantabile’
from the 6th Symphony
and perhaps the opening ‘Allegro Vivace’
of the 5th. Only one
slight problem – I did feel that the
‘famous’ Toccata ‘dragged’ ever
so slightly – whereas the magnificent
‘Finale’ of the 6th
Symphony is absolutely stunning.
Finally the quality
of the recording is exactly what we
have come to expect from Guild and the
programme notes are impressive.