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Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Organ Symphony No.5, Op.42, No.1 (1879) [40:50]
Organ Symphony No.6, Op.42, No.2 (1879) [37:54]
Colin Walsh (organ)
rec. Lincoln Cathedral, 19-21 September, 2005. DDD
GUILD GMCD 7305 [79:16]

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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 one piece.

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 control equipment.

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.

John France


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