Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Organ Symphony No.6, Op.42, No.2 (1879) [37:54]
Organ Symphony No.5, Op.42, No.1 (1879) [40:50]
Joseph Nolan (organ)
rec. 18-24 May 2011, L’église de la Madeleine, Paris
Charles-Marie Widor was inspired to write symphonies for organ on encountering the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Sulpice in Paris, and so it makes complete sense to use these legendary instruments to create the sounds Widor was so enthusiastic about exploiting. The organ at la Madeleine has been used in recordings of Widor before, such as that with Frédéric Ledroit on the Skarbo label (see review). The high note tuning issues/reverberation mentioned by William Kreindler in 2008 appear not to be an issue with the present recording, though I don’t have the Skarbo disc for comparison. The sounds here, as the grand opening to the Symphony No. 6 testifies, are characteristic and a tremendous experience.
We’ve seen this coupling before of course, including that with Colin Walsh on the Avie label (see review) and from the Simax label played by Kåre Norstega. The Simax recording comes from another Cavaillé-Coll organ, that at l’Abbatiale St Etienne de Caen. This does have a magnificent sound though is recorded with less weight in the lower end of the spectrum, which means greater clarity but a touch less oomph. This Signum recording is on the warmer side, which creates a wonderful atmosphere in the slow movements and generates an impressive general picture when everything is happening at once.
These performances are also excellent. One of the more dubious recordings I’ve long had of these pieces is from a 1994 box set on the Novalis label performed by Günther Kaunzinger. His performances disappoint through being too rushed, and you can hear how Joseph Nolan is far more prepared to allow his instrument to create music at its natural pace rather than forcing a more spectacular and ultimately less attractive interpretation. Just as an example, Nolan’s Intermezzo in the Symphony No. 6 is 6:16 to Kaunzinger’s 4:50, and Nolan doesn’t sound in the least bit slow. His rhythm and articulation is terrific in the Finale of this symphony as well.
The Organ Symphony No. 5 is by far the better known of these two works, and largely on the strength of its final Toccata, which is one of the best known organ pieces of all time. It is good to hear the work complete of course, and I like Joseph Nolan’s touch with the variation feel of the first movement, adding little touches of rubato and keeping the expressive juices while maintaining a feel for the bigger structural picture and not pulling things around too much. He reminds us that there is wit and humour in this music, as well as fizzing creativity and impressive grandeur - a line which can be drawn back to the terrific fun to be found in works by Lefébure-Wély and further back to Balbastre and the like. The Allegro cantabile second movement is more allegro than some, but still has its gorgeous melodic flow over an ever-moving and restless accompaniment. I relish the space and weight given to the opening of the Andantino quasi allegretto, which moves across our aural landscape like a very large, slowly rolling thing which you want to bite into like balsa wood. The pastorale feel of the Adagio is kept simple, acting as a preface to that famous Toccata, which is superbly done. Joseph Nolan knows just how far he can push his instrument without turning this cascade of notes into meaningless mush, and you have a good sense of the multiple layers of musical invention which have gone into the piece. The final bars are truly stunning. Nolan’s timing is pretty typical at just under 5 minutes excluding reverberation, as compared to Günter Kaunzinger’s slightly mad 4:17 which results in half of the interval coffee cups being spilt and the loss of just about all of the rhythmic subtleties in the piece.
The booklet tells us that Joseph Nolan recorded his cycle of Widor’s ten symphonies in just seven nights at L’église de la Madeleine, which is no mean achievement. We can expect the standard to be as high as this first volume and this looks like being a set well worth collecting. The sound isn’t perhaps the most revealing you’ll ever come across for this type of organ repertoire, but the atmosphere and timbres are all just as they should be, the performances putting this amongst the top rank for these great works
Dominy Clements
A set to collect - as good as most and better than many.