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Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Organ Symphony No. 3 in E minor, Op. 13/3 (1872) [33:23]
Organ Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 13/4 (1872) [31:36]
Joseph Nolan (organ)
rec. 4-8 August 2011, L’église de la Madeleine, Paris

Dominy Clements has been following this cycle with great interest and enthusiasm; indeed, he says this latest volume is a ‘must have’, adding that the organ sound here is more detailed than it is in the first two instalments (review). Quite apart from matters of interpretation, I often find the sonics of such recordings to be something of a ‘wall of sound’, which hardly conveys the organ’s depth and scale. I make no secret of my admiration for engineer/producer Mika Koivusalo, whose organ SACDs for Fuga and Alba strike me as the most immersive and sophisticated available.
Koivusalo is the man behind fellow Finn Jan Lehtola’s SACD of Widor’s 3rd and 8th organ symphonies, the many splendours of which could well make it my Recording of the Year 2013 (review). Organist Joseph Nolan is new to me, but the great Cavaillé-Coll of La Madeleine, Paris, is an old friend. It’s not the most refined or subtle of beasts, but it can make the most thrilling noises. By contrast the Cavaillé-Coll of St François-de-Sales, Lyon - used in the Lehtola recording - has a gentler disposition; it also has a liquid loveliness that’s especially welcome in the floated detail of quieter passages.
In Nolan’s hands the Prélude of No. 3 strikes me as a little opaque, although the less-than-forensic recording may have something to do with that. Alongside Lehtola he also seems a trifle measured; he certainly doesn’t tease out as much colour or nuance as Lehtola does. He’s not as supple either, and that makes for an ever so slightly dulled opener. The Menuetto is more characterful - there are some shiversome sounds here - and I found myself warming to the soft-aged sound.
That said, the imposing Marcia looms large and bright, whereas the Lehtola recording - on both the vanilla and Super Audio layers - has a presence, a three-dimensionality, that brings out the range and depth of the composer’s writing in the most astonishing way. As for the Adagio - surely one of M. Widor’s loveliest creations - Nolan is wonderfully mobile, and he’s alive to the jewelled qualities of this music too. If anything Lehtola is even more lustrous, and his gentle, underpinning pedals are a joy to hear.
Make no mistake, Nolan’s 3rd is very accomplished indeed, and the engineering is far better than you’ll hear on a run-of-the-mill organ CD; still, if you want a supremely sensitive, finely calibrated reading in top-notch sound Lehtola is your man. His disc is exceptional, one of those rare occasions where the acoustic, instrument, musical and technical prowess conspire to create something very special. It really is that good; what a pity it’s a one-off, for a complete cycle from this partnership would be hard to beat.
Rather than ponder on what-might-have-been I pressed on with the 4th. The Toccata, while less of a showpiece than that of the ubiquitous 5th, is still very imposing; Nolan despatches it with commendable clarity and vigour, all of it caught in a big, bold soundscape. The fugal second movement is a delight; this music is so colourful and Nolan ensures it has the rhythmic agility it needs to avoid coagulation. Even more rewarding is the filigreed writing of the Andante cantabile, which has seldom sounded so light and tactile. Indeed, the range of voices here reminds one that these pieces were written with an orchestral palette in mind. Nolan’s delicate, singing line is simply gorgeous, and I’m astonished at the refined and diaphanous sounds he draws from this oft unruly instrument.
The skittish Scherzo is no less appealing, and I found myself marvelling anew at the movement’s Ariel-like mobility and mischief. It seems the recording is most beguiling in the symphony’s intimate moments; yes, one might yearn for greater definition in those quiet, fleeting details, but Nolan’s playing both here and in the elusive Adagio is beyond reproach. As Caliban would have it, these ‘sweet airs … give delight and hurt not’. Indeed, such will-o’-the-wispery is welcome in the midst of Widor/Prospero’s more extravagant gestures, of which the surging Finale is a good example.
In the wake of Nolan’s fine musicianship it seems impudent to extol the virtues of the competition; that said, it would be remiss of me not to, as Lehtola’s pairing of the 3rd and 8th is a mandatory purchase for Widor fans and audiophiles alike. I can see why Dominy rates Nolan’s cycle so highly though, and those who invested in the first two volumes need not hesitate over this one. The liner-notes - very detailed, but eminently readable - round off a most desirable package.
Nolan is not without competition in the 3rd, but his 4th is superb; roll on Volume 4.
Dan Morgan  

Previous review: Dominy Clements