Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
The Organ Symphonies - Volume 5
Symphonie gothique, Op.70 (1894) [29:23]
Symphonie romane, Op.73 (1899) [32:47]
Joseph Nolan (organ)
rec. 4-8 August 2011, L’église de la Madeleine, Paris and 25-25 May 2014, La Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse (Symphonie romane)

Joseph Nolan’s excellent set of Widor’s organ symphonies (1 & 2 ~ 3 & 4 ~ 5 & 6 ~ 7 & 8) reaches a culmination if not entirely a conclusion with these final two symphonies, the Ninth and Tenth. A further release making this a set of Widor’s complete organ works is already in the can, recorded both at the Toulouse session and St Francois De Sales in Lyon, but this fifth volume completes the symphonies, and will be a mandatory purchase for anyone who has collected the previous releases.

Called respectively the Gothique and Romane symphonies, these two great works make a good pairing, sharing as they do an arguably more introspective character than the more outwardly virtuoso earlier symphonies, though by no means lacking in display when Widor decides literally to pull out all the stops. He also worked with plainchant melodies in both of these works, the Symphonie Gothique using the Christmas Day Introit Puer natus est in the last two of its four movements, while the Symphonie Romane is orientated towards Easter, the Haec dies playing a significant role throughout the entire work. Ates Orga’s booklet notes for this release are harder to read than usual, but we can just about glean that Widor’s intentions were to honour two great churches, each of which had new Cavaillé-Coll organs. These are the Gothic Church of St. Ouen in Rouen and the Romanesque Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulouse, the location for this recording of the Ninth.

Superbly recorded in that now familiar week in August 2011, this performance of the Eighth is very much up to the standard set by the rest. As has been noted before, Joseph Nolan’s tempi tend toward the slower end of expectations, but as before he manages to make this work very well indeed, by no means wallowing indulgently but obtaining maximum expression and giving himself and us that little bit of extra space, which works well in music on such a grand scale. Overall Nolan is about three minutes longer than Marie-Claire Alain in her Erato recording of the Ninth Symphony, but actually turns in a marginally shorter timing with the Tenth when compared to Pierre Pincemaille in his complete set on the Solstice label. This is mostly accounted for by Nolan’s more compact view of the Cantilène third movement.

Mention has been made in previous editions of this set about the recording quality. Complexities in the final movement of the Ninth for instance are not always helped by the balance of atmosphere over clarity, though these are the kinds of issues that differences in the ways one listen also make a difference. When listening over cheaper earphones I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on at times in this movement, so picked a copy of the score from the library. You can trace the lines while reading the parts, but the innocent ear can end up searching for inner voices at times, especially when the outer ones are particularly powerful and reedy. It should be added that in other sections Widor himself does the music few favours by adding in ornaments that threaten rhythmic integrity no matter how good the player is. There’s even a pedal mordent in there somewhere which Nolan gracefully ignores. I hauled out my old box on the Novalis label with Günter Kaunzinger in the Dom at Limburg just for fun, as Kaunzinger is pretty much the opposite to Nolan in coming in faster than most other organists. This recording is pretty good for clarity but sometimes you wish it wasn’t. There are some strange vox humana sounds and, at my age, what sounds like some pretty distressing upper octave sonorities from the Klais organ used. The second movement Andante sostenuto of the Ninth is a big Widor favourite and Joseph Nolan turns in a gorgeously musical performance, timing it just a scrap under six minutes which sounds perfect to me.

The acoustic in Toulouse is less resonant than la Madeleine in Paris, and the Cavaillé-Coll organ sounds glorious with Mike Hatch’s engineering. Have a listen to the first minute or so of the first movement to the Ninth and you’ll be sold immediately. The balance from top to bottom is rich and involving, and the pervasive presence of the Haec dies Easter Mass theme means this is a work through which one can move as within a labyrinth of variation and thematic transformation. Nolan’s performance is appropriately ruminative though again without any over-indulgent lingering. His touch is poetic, and flows through Widor’s tensions and resolutions with a sense both of logical progression and of fresh discovery. This is a less familiar Widor symphony on recordings but deserves this kind of rewardingly satisfying performance to deliver its full effect.

Back in 2013 I said that “this looks like shaping up to be the Widor Organ Symphonies cycle of the decade,” and I certainly stand by that prediction now.

Dominy Clements

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