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Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Suite Latine (1932) [34:15]
Trois Nouvelles Pièces Op. 87 (1934) [13:53]
Bach’s Memento (1925) [24:43]
Marche Americaine (1876) [5:49]*
Conte d’Avril: No. 6. Marche Nuptiale (1890) [5:49]*
Joseph Nolan (organ)
rec. 2013, Saint Francois de Sales, Lyon*; 2015, Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse. SIGNUM RECORDS SIGCD438 [2CDs: 48:10 + 34:29]
This final volume in Joseph Nolan’s superb cycle of Widor's organ symphonies is a rather special jewel with which to top its already distinguished crown. Widor's symphonies are justly renowned, though inevitably seen as a source for cherry-picking of their best moments by many. Less well-known are the pieces in this programme, which consists largely of later works composed after the final symphony was completed in 1899.
The Suite Latine is an elegant and restrained work, the 'Latine' of the title referring to a religious context rather than any other. Three of its six movements draw on Gregorian plainchant, a source of material that Widor had explored in his last two organ symphonies.
The Trois Nouvelle Pièces are described in the booklet as "new in composition, old in language, ancient in mood... the swansong testament of a ninety-year old." It is indeed hard to imagine this having been composed by someone who had been a teacher to Varèse and Messiaen, but Widor's creative voice retained its recognisable authenticity and uncompromising faith in tonal centres and expansive musical structures while the youth of the day were being attracted by experiment and the rhythms of jazz. There is perhaps a certain amount of knowing irony in the titles given to each piece. The bustling finale, Classique d'aujourd hui might be a reference to impetuous industry, but this is a toccata-like piece that also harks back to some of Widor's most distinctive movements, revelling in mastery of an idiom that he no doubt hoped would stand the test of time.
Bach's Memento takes us back just a few years to 1925. Without an opus number, this is a suite of six paraphrase-transcriptions from specific BWV numbers in Bach's catalogue that were made to inaugurate a new organ. The booklet notes refer to a certain amount of outraged contemporary criticism of the 'distortions' of Bach in these versions on their publication, but in a comparable fashion to Stokowski's transcriptions of Bach and others, Widor knew what he was doing. Indeed, he described his work as 'orchestrating' these pieces, intentionally using them as a vehicle for demonstrating the character of a particular instrument, the subtle and majestic results entirely enjoyable in their own right and taking nothing away from the originals, as indeed could hardly have been further away from Widor's own intentions. We always keep Bach's own scores and interpret these in our own way, and in this case Widor has drawn the music into his own idiom, combining and transforming each piece into an expression that embraces the possibilities of the gorgeous three-manual instrument at his disposal.
Reminding is that Widor's work went beyond pieces for organ, the Marche américaine is a fun transcription of a piano original from Widor's Feuillets d'album, and the Marche nuptiale was originally written for a play called ‘Conte d'Avril’, the music for which being quite a hit in its day. Summed up as 'recessional music at its best', the quiet beginning, steady build-up and rousing conclusion make this the perfect close to Joseph Nolan's triumphant Widor collection.
As far as comparisons go there aren’t that many to name for this programme. Movements from Bach’s Memento tend to crop up more as excerpts than in their complete form, as in Martin Schmeding’s Bach Transcriptions album (review). Recordings of the Suite Latine are also thin on the ground, but Ben van Oosten is good in his complete Widor edition on the MDG label, also using the Cavaillé-Coll instrument at St Sernin. Comparing Van Oosten with Nolan through online sources it would seem that the Signum engineer Mike Hatch has set his microphones a little closer, capturing more detail while also catching more mechanical noise from the instrument. It's a case of swings and roundabouts, but the impact at full fortissimo is more stunning from Nolan, so on those terms I would prefer this Signum recording. As with the symphonies, Joseph Nolan allows all of these pieces plenty of space to breathe without making them heavy or lugubrious, bringing out Widor's natural lyricism and the musicality of his expertise with organ registration and expression while also giving us every intricacy of his brilliant harmonic textures and counterpoint.