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Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937)
Symphony gothique (1895) [32:40]
Symphonie roman (1900) [32:20]
Bjørn Boysen (organ)
rec. Aarhus Cathedral, Denmark, 27-28 March 2006. DDD
SIMAX PSC1155 [65:00]

If ever a composer is defined by a single work it is Charles-Marie Widor. Talk to the average blushing bride and she and her mother will have at least considered Widor’s Toccata; pronounced “widdors tock-at-too”. She may eventually settle on something by Andrew Lloyd Webber or Queen – but it is likely that she will have listened to at least one recording of this famous - infamous? - work.
Now up the ante a little and ask the average music enthusiast about Widor. If they are ‘into’ the organ they will know that he wrote a number of Organ Symphonies – but I guess not one in twenty will have heard his Trio for Piano and Strings in B flat. And how many know that he wrote a Piano Concerto?  And thinking about the organ- just look at the CD catalogue – there are at present some sixty recordings of the ubiquitous Toccata and only one of the above mentioned Trio. All food for thought.
This CD presents the last two major works that Widor composed for his instrument. And these two Symphonies are very different from the first eight. I would not reckon them as being amongst my ‘favourites’ in the repertoire – however that is purely a personal view. And I guess that they will never be as popular as the Fifth or the Sixth Symphony with organ enthusiasts. Yet it is clear that Widor was embarking on a new direction with these two ‘liturgical’ works. They deserve to be listened to just as much as the more popular ‘war horses’. But we need to recognise that they are different from what had gone before. For one thing Widor began to utilise musical material from the Roman Catholic Liturgy. It was a practice analogous to Bach’s use of chorales in his organ and choral music.
The Symphonie gothique was composed in 1895 and is dedicated to the Church of Saint-Ouen in Rouen. This is the home of one of the finest Cavaillé-Coll organs in the world. In spite of his new-found interest in plainsong, only the last two movements of this work are based on the plainchant from the Christmas introit – ‘Puer natus est’. The programme notes suggest that this was because the work was written over a long period of time. The earlier movements were composed before Widor had met Schweitzer who was responsible for introducing the composer to a deeper understanding of Bach’s use of ecclesiastical material. Look out for the opening movement as it works its course with an almost tortuous exposition. This is ‘anguished’ music that only occasionally seems to relax. There is a harshness here that will surprise listeners who only know the ‘warhorses.’ The last movement has been likened to a historical trip through organ music history culminating in a ‘toccata’ that is fairly and squarely Widor’s own.
The Symphonie romane is dedicated to Saint-Sernin of Toulouse. Once again Widor makes use of plainchant – this time it is the ‘Haec dies’ setting from Easter Day, which is fundamental to the entire composition. It is the source of virtually all the melodic material of this symphony. It could lead to a degree of boredom or monotony. Yet this is not the overall impression given. Albert Schweitzer wrote that: “When one Sunday (in 1900) still striving with technical problems. (Widor) played for the first time in St. Suplice the Symphonie romane, I felt with him that in this work the French art of organ playing had entered sacred art.” The variety of techniques that Widor uses to build the Symphony is impressive. Look out for Listzian figurations, the chromatic sections well contrasting with the inherently modal plainsong and the ‘massive pedal points’.
These two compositions are enormous works that are different from the earlier symphonies in both conception and sound-scape. That does not mean that the listener should enjoy them more or regard them as a greater pieces – it is actually a matter of opinion. But one thing is certain – Widor had embarked on a sea-change in his approach to writing organ music.
Bjørn Boysen is probably not well known in the United Kingdom, yet he is rated as one of Norway’s finest concert organists. He regularly gives recitals in his home country and does concert tours throughout the rest of Europe. Since 1977 he has been the resident organist at the Oslo Concert Hall. Boysen is multi-talented – not only is he an active recitalist, but he also teaches music and is a consultant on both new organ-builds and restorations of older instruments. His excellent programme notes deserve study.
John France


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