Charles-Marie WIDOR (1843-1937)
Organ Symphony No.6 in G minor, Op.42 No.2 [35:00]
Organ Symphony No.5 in F minor, Op.42 No.1 [37:32]
Joseph Nolan (organ)
rec. L’Église de la Madeleine, Paris, 18-24 May 2011. DDD
Text and organ specifications provided
Joseph Nolan spent seven nights in May 2011 recording all ten Widor organ symphonies at La Madeleine in Paris. This disc is the first product of those sessions. One cannot judge an entire series on the basis of one disc, but Nolan’s performances of the fifth and sixth symphonies indicate real competition for Ben van Oosten’s complete set if Nolan’s succeeding recordings are of the same quality as this one.
Widor himself described his first four organ symphonies (published together as Op. 13) as “collections” of individual pieces. In the succeeding symphonies he made more of an effort at thematic and harmonic connection between the movements. The sixth symphony was actually written a year before the fifth and combines adherence to sonata-form with stylistic aspects of French keyboard music of the time as well as a predilection for dance rhythms. Nolan plays the well-known opening allegro with all these elements carefully integrated, easily handling the difficult crescendo in the middle of the movement. He displays equal vigour in the symphony’s central movement - some of his best playing here - while the Cantabile is especially gentle and effective.
The fifth symphony is built on variation of material in the first movement and again, several of the movements contain dance rhythms. The first movement is an interesting combination of Lefébure-Wely and the Baroque while the Andantino is surprisingly tense and effective. The last movement is, depending on one’s viewpoint, the ubiquitous or immortal Toccata. Nolan does not succumb to the temptation of playing this favourite too quickly - Widor never did either - preferring to point out the different harmonic strands as the movement progresses.
Joseph Nolan is totally comfortable with the idiom of these pieces and his tempi are especially to be commended. A few of his stylistic choices seem to derive more from St. James Palace - where Nolan was formerly organist - than from the Madeleine or St. Sulpice but this is perhaps to be expected. He is also somewhat prone to sentimentality in the slow movements, and there is one unfortunate moment in the sixth symphony where the music momentarily gets the better of him. These are small problems. The real issue here is the variable recording quality. There are many sudden dynamic changes that have nothing to do with the performer or the score as well as abrupt changes in sound quality from ultra-sharp to ultra-fuzzy. These sound deficiencies are very distracting and it is to be hoped that they are not as evident in the remaining volumes of Mr. Nolan’s series. Even so this disc is merits high praise as a one-off recording of the two symphonies, although there is strong competition in Colin Walsh’s disc (see review) and in Marie-Claire Alain’s set on Warner Apex (see review), although my colleague Chris Bragg does not agree. As to Mr. Nolan’s succeeding volumes, if the quality of the performances are at the same level as this - in spite of recording deficiencies - this series could rival that of Ben van Oosten as the standard for the Widor symphonies.
William Kreindler

see also review by Dominy Clements 

This series could rival that of Ben van Oosten as the standard for the Widor symphonies.