Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Piano Concerto No.1 in F minor Op.39 (1876) [29:47]
Fantaisie in A flat major Op.62 (1889) [22:21]
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor Op.77 (1905) [19:28]
Markus Becker (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thierry Fischer
rec. BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales, 30 June – 2 July 2010
HYPERION CDA67817 [71:38]

As far as the general classical music listening public is concerned Charles Widor belongs to select band of composers; the one-hit wonders. The truth is nearly always that these self-same composers have substantial bodies of work lying in the shadow of the famed piece. Such is the case here although it would take something of a specialist to claim intimate knowledge of Widor’s music written away from the organ-loft or cathedral. As ever, Naxos have provided samples of his chamber and vocal works. Centaur recorded his violin sonatas. It has taken Hyperion fifty-five discs in their Romantic Piano Concerto series to reach Widor although I imagine their marketing department are slightly frustrated that this disc’s appearance is at pretty much the exact time of the identical programme appearing on Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7275) even though this disc claims the ‘premiere recordings’ palm. Quite whether the catalogue can sustain two recordings of such rare repertoire I am not sure. I have not heard the Dutton disc.

One biographical thing to note regarding Widor is just what a long life he led. When he was born it was barely thirty years after the battle of Waterloo and when he died it was barely thirty years before man landed on the moon. His first concerto was written when he was barely thirty which gives a pointless but rather neat symmetry to proceedings. This will read as damned by faint praise but the words ‘competent’, ‘charming’ and ‘well mannered’ spring to mind. By some distance it’s the least interesting of the three works recorded here. It made me realise just how good and relatively under-appreciated Saint-Saëns is. The model of the Widor concerto is similar to that of Saint-Saëns namely Schumann out of Chopin with just enough salon gentility not to cause offence. The problem is that Saint-Saëns proves to be the superior tunesmith and orchestrator. The opening movement is the most problematic – rather self-consciously determined to be ‘serious’. Widor gives his soloist little if any rest – even in the passages one would expect to be the orchestral ‘tuttis’ he has his pianist adding layers of superfluous passage-work to the already rather opaque scoring. The central Andante religioso is significantly better with the piano allowed to decorate a sombrely beautiful chordal string passage which gives the movement its Religioso marking. The finale is more characterful too – the word I chose to describe it in my listening notes is exactly the same as that liner writer Nigel Simeone uses; ‘galumphing’. Basically that means a good-natured compound-time clumsy dance. Widor discards that by the end of the movement which is a shame since the music returns to the routine feel of the opening pages. So the impression from this work is one of more craft than inspiration – interesting to have heard but not much more.

Fortunately the companion works are of a distinctly higher order of musical merit. The twenty-two minute Fantaisie Op.62 is the best of the lot finding a fine balance between a surging romanticism that was too contained in the earlier work and considerably more melodic and orchestral interest. Widor still seems intent on getting his money’s worth from his soloist and the writing here - and also in the second concerto - takes on a Lisztian bravura that ups the emotional temperature. Simeone also notes the presence of the influence of Franck but I have to say that the two later Widor works have far greater drama and thrust than Franck usually achieves. Simeone also notes that the Fantaisie is an early example of a particularly Gallic musical form with Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Godard, Fauré and Dupré all essaying the form. The neglect of this work must stem from the problem of programming a work of such a length but technical difficulty for the soloist. The same is probably true of the Piano Concerto in C minor which has three distinct movements - the second and third run ‘attacca’ - but adds up to a total of just nineteen minutes. Time and tide wait for no man so by 1905 this distinctly conservative concerto was already four years later than that most famous of C minor concertos: the not exactly revolutionary Rachmaninov No. 2. In its own right this is an immediately easy and enjoyable listen. The conclusion of the first movement, building to a heroic brass chord, is brilliant in conception and execution. Likewise the close of the entire concerto emerges from a mist of piano passage-work and string shimmers into a confidently assertive climax thrillingly played by the ever-reliable BBCNOW. Certainly all three works fulfill this series’ remit perfectly. The Hyperion production team has this so off to a tee now. The consistently high quality of the music-making and engineering throughout reflects great credit on all involved. I had wondered if the orchestra sounded a little reserved or even detached in the first concerto but on reflection I think this is a function of the weaker work – the climactic passages of the later two pieces have the orchestra on top form, the brass especially brilliant. Mention too must be made of the delightful violin solo by leader Lesley Hatfield near the end of the second concerto’s Andante. I had not heard any of pianist Markus Becker’s other discs but he makes a very fine impression here. As always one can only admire the time and effort that has been put into learning works that by definition will remain at the periphery of one’s active repertoire. Technically he is totally assured but musically too he sounds wholly convincing and involved. Conductor Thierry Fischer keeps the music moving with purpose and energy which to my ear makes the most of the mixed blessing that is the first concerto. If this is not as revelatory as some of the discs in this series have been that is more to do with a degree of familiarity with the composer in question; that and the fact that this is music that more comfortably sits within standard moulds.

Nick Barnard

Not as revelatory as some of the discs in this series.