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Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Organ Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.13, No.1 (pub. 1872) [40:27]
Organ Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.13, No.2 (pub. 1872) [37:40]
Joseph Nolan (organ)
rec. 18-24 May 2011, L’église de la Madeleine, Paris

These two works launched Charles-Marie Widor’s entirely new genre the organ symphony onto an entirely unsuspecting public. Hailed by Widor biographer and editor John R. Near as “the greatest contribution to organ literature since the works of Johan Sebastian Bach”, their significance was also not lost on their creator, and he returned to them at various stages in his life to revise them.
I reviewed volume 1 of this set about a year ago, and since then a new competitor has entered the field: Jan Lehtola in SACD on the Alba label (see review). With its ‘Historical Organs and Composers’ title this doesn’t look like becoming a complete cycle, and with no overlap in repertoire so far this amounts to little more than a Widor alert for fans, but Lehtola certainly looks interesting. Trawling around for releases with the same programme I came across Hans Ole Thurs on the ClassicO label CLASSCD442, who is decent enough but with by no means the panache and elegance of style shown by Joseph Nolan. There is another set on Cavaillé-Coll instruments played by Pierre Pincemaille on the Solstice label, SOCD181-85, but again I found myself missing Nolan’s refinement and subtlety. A closer candidate might be Joris Verdin on Ricercar RIC286 whose nicely recorded perspective has a similar spaciousness to that on this Signum Classics recording.
What comparing versions does reveal is Joseph Nolan’s preference for considerably slower tempi than many players. His first movement to the Organ Symphony No. 1 is 6:25 compared to Verdin’s 4:30, his second movement 7:53 to Verdin’s 5:21 and Pincemaille’s 6:10. He is a good 5 minutes longer over the entirely of the work than many of the examples I could find. These are significant extensions of Widor’s proportions which may take a little getting used to if you already familiar with these works. Nolan is by no means soggy when it comes to rhythm however, and his faster movements are satisfyingly powerful and energetic.
Slower tempi may not be to all tastes, but Joseph Nolan turns these pieces more into genuine ‘symphonies’ than many other versions I’ve heard, tuning in fully to Widor’s ambitiously grand sense of scale. Once you’ve heard the insinuating pedal lines of the opening to the Organ Symphony No. 1 and realised you’re in for something of status and importance, the path back to the bad old ways is harder than the acceptance of the new. Nolan’s view of this and other movements is more comparable with the architecture within which it’s being played, with long vistas and sweeping lines which guide the eye and conjure feelings of awe. That second movement Allegretto has a disarmingly gorgeous melody which seems matter of fact in so many other versions. Nolan’s length of line allows Widor’s lines to shimmer and unfurl like a rainbow in a gentle wind. The weak point for me in this work has always been the incredibly corny Marche pontificale, and while Nolan’s impressive performance does its best to rise above the rather crass inevitably of the movement it alas remains a curate’s egg in a basket of gems. Just hear the magical and luminous colour in the Méditation and the imperiously brilliant counterpoint of the Finale which follow and Widor is immediately forgiven.
The Organ Symphony No. 2 is a bit shorter than the first, and as Ates Orga points out in the booklet notes it is less overtly polyphonic, emphasising the tone colour of these remarkable French organs. Nolan’s broad view of the music continues here, allowing the warm tones of the instrument in La Madeleine to develop and undulate with a natural sounding and organic character. The playful nature of the Pastorale is nicely expressed, and the longest movement, the marvellously constructed Andante is painted with generously broad strokes of enticingly restrained hues. The Salve Regina could perhaps be a bit more Allegro but the pedal entry is pretty thrilling, as is the following sprightly Scherzo which takes up any slack. Not given much attention in the booklet, the penultimate Adagio is one of my favourite Widor movements, full of quirky cadences and the occasional blue note dropped in nonchalantly as if by accident. The vibrato-laden tones of the organ are perfectly attuned to the music’s times, filtering down to the desiccated wreaths which adorn those ancient tombs in the crypt, this mood swept away with a rousing toccata in the Finale - Allegro.
Joseph Nolan’s cycle of Widor organ symphonies is one I know I will have to collect in its entirety but then, I knew that after the first volume. His approach to these works balances that fine line between extending the boundaries of standard performance practice while avoiding performances which linger excessively. His breadth of view gives Widor’s music its full expressive weight without wallowing, entirely respecting the composer’s idiom and the musical values of his environment while pointing out the sheer proto-Mahlerian scale of some movements and each work as a whole. The recording is, as all of these will be having been recorded in a single week, warmly communicative and an accurate portrayal of a magnificent instrument in its monumental acoustic. Not too much detail is lost, but neither is every set of pipes racked up in front of your face in an attempt to create something overly and artificially spectacular. This looks like shaping up to be the Widor Organ Symphonies cycle of the decade.
Dominy Clements