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Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
The Organ Symphonies - Volume 4
Symphony No.7, Op.42, No.3 (1886-87) [45:54]
Symphony No.8, Op.42, No.4 (1886-87) [52:26]
Joseph Nolan (organ)
rec. 4-8 August 2011, L’église de la Madeleine, Paris

Readers of MWI will have spotted my enthusiasm for the previous volumes in this series: see reviews of with Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3. This fourth volume shares its recording dates with the third in the series, and the balance between colourful detail and acoustic atmosphere is every bit as good as with all of the other symphonies so far.
If you’ve never heard these pieces before you are in for a real treat. I’ve never heard the opening Moderato of the Seventh Symphony sound so heroic and sparkling. There is always the risk that this music can end up rather bombastic, but there is so much energetic brightness in the Madeleine church on this occasion that the effects are no short of breathtaking. I clocked Joseph Nolan’s tempo in the opening of the second movement as closer to quarter-note/crotchet = 42 rather than the marked 52, but a broader approach is something I’ve become accustomed to and to appreciate from this performer. Beautiful sound and a marvellous legato fluidity turn this into something I doubt Widor would have argued with, and the contrast this generates with the Andante variations further along makes for another masterly reading. Nolan appreciates the need for forward motion in the lyrical dance which opens the third movement, so he is only a touch under the 54 marking, and the gently swinging one-in-a-bar is elegantly Gallic. Only a fairly small detail, but there is a little controversy further along where the sustained trumpet notes are marked Piano, but the registration holds sternly onto what might generously be termed a Forte – bearing in mind that the opening of the second movement is also marked Forte – this rather covers up the notes lower in the instrument and can only be regarded as perhaps something as a miscalculation on the part of the composer or a registration which might have taken to a slight tweak.
I confess myself to being somewhat emotionally attached to the fourth movement of this symphony, and the effect of the slowly moving melody with its swiftly undulating accompaniment – turned into almost whispering figurations in this case – is a sheer joy. After this, the opening of the fifth movement is akin to unlocking the door to Nirvana, Nolan’s tempo again closer to 53 rather than the marked 63 but perfectly in proportion with the rest of his spacious and warmly all-embracing performance of the rest of the work. I’d never made quite the connection to tonality with this piece and its influence on musicians such as Messiaen, but the whiteness of the C major chord within the first minute of the finale is truly striking in this performance. This is the launch-pad for some truly searching tonal twists and turns, but after such a shot of Tequila we’re ready to take on remoteness of any kind, trusting our guides to thrill us and deliver us safely back to, where? – to A major? – whoooeeee! Ates Orga’s booklet notes describe this and the ride throughout the entire work as being “at times near-Sibelian in anticipation” and I couldn’t agree more.
Talking of Messiaen, isolate the first two bars of the Eighth Symphony and you are there and nowhere else. Contemporary commentator John R. Near raved about this work’s “Mahlerian scope”, considering it “the ultimate achievement in the art of organ composition.” As with the previous symphony, the opening movement lays out a store of remarkable effects, in this case growing out of and at times appearing to retreat into themes of relative naivety. At over ten minutes this is one of the most overtly ‘symphonic’ of these movements, and the capabilities of the instrument and performer are indeed examined to the full. The second movement’s relaxed and disarming lyricism recalls Mendelssohn, the mildly contrasting tonal atmosphere of the central section something from which we are safely delivered by a celestially elongated cadence.
You will no doubt have heard the Allegro third movement a fair bit quicker on other recordings as compared to here, and Nolan hovers more around 104 in comparison to a metronome mark of 132. This offers a good deal more detail and reveals complexities hidden in some other more precipitous performances. Nolan finds excitement in the building of tensions as the themes develop and textures expand, but we don’t really reach any kind of fever pitch or ‘Hexentanz’ as suggested in the booklet. This is the only place in the entire cycle so far where Nolan’s broader tempo has arguably gone too far.
My score has a Prélude as a fourth movement which seems to have been ditched in the 1901 revision and is ignored by performers in general. With the truly monumental Variations in fourth place the main weight of the second half of the symphony is contrapuntal, the passacaglia a vast movement with “a magnificence and strength to equal the mightiest in Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner.” The scale and ambition of this movement, superbly paced by Nolan, demands a cooling-off period which arrives in the form of a gentle Adagio, further demonstrating the softer registers of the organ and Nolan’s expressive phrasing. The Finale is another of Widor’s movements which can appear overbearing and overly grandiose. Joseph Nolan keeps the rhythms tight and gives the notes enough articulation to allow for space and lightness to shine through. There is a funny moment at 2:11 where a B flat is allowed to clash against an A perhaps a little too heavily. With the repetition two bars later it sticks out less, but the B flat is an ornamental grace note and shouldn’t appear on top of the A like a stacked pancake. Leaving this picky comment aside the movement fully lives up to its description by Riemenschneider as a thing of “almost barbaric splendour and exuberance”.
I’ve left out comparisons with other recordings, but comments made in the other reviews apply here. Joseph Nolan’s cycle of Widor’s Organ Symphonies is a potent force in terms of both performance and recording and to my mind sweeps aside the competition with consummate ease.
Dominy Clements