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Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
Organ Symphony No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42 No. 1 [36:01]
Organ Symphony No. 9, Op. 70 ‘Gothique’ [29:21]
Organ Symphony No. 6 in G minor, Op. 42 No. 2 [35:59]
Organ Symphony No. 10, Op. 73 ‘Romane’ [30:55]
Organ Symphony No. 8 in B major, Op. 42 No. 4 [49:32]
Christian Schmitt (organ)
rec. 2012-14, Cavaillé-Coll organ of the Abbey Church of St. Ouen, Rouen, France
CPO 777 706-2 SACD [3 discs: 182:06]

I have been waiting for this set to come out for a long time now. I have the rest of Christian Schmitt’s excellent recordings of Widor’s masterly organ works, including the symphonies Nos. 1-4 (777 705-2), symphonies for organ and orchestra Opp. 42 and 81 (777 443-2) and the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra Op. 69 No. 3 and Organ Symphony No. 7 (777 678-2), and only hope that on reflection on these excellent recordings of this wonderful music, that CPO will soon be releasing the final volume in which Christian Schmitt performs the remaining, often forgotten solo organ works, including the Suite Latine which has received an excellent recording on the Cavaillé-Coll organ of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse by Joseph Nolan (SIGCD438).

Charles-Marie Widor holds a special place in music, as he was the first romantic composer to compose an organ symphony, Alkan having earlier composed his Symphony for Solo Piano in 1857, and whilst the opus 13 symphonies are more akin to the organ music of Mendelssohn, he certainly pulls out all the stops, literally, and produces a more symphonic sound from his Symphony No. 5 onwards. It is wrong to describe Widor as a one hit wonder, with the Toccata from Symphony No. 5 being performed at countless weddings and featuring on many organ-highlight CDs, but this is against the composer’s wishes, as he did not want the piece to be seen as a fast-paced showpiece or played without feeling. You don’t have to worry about that here, as this set opens with a wonderful performance of the whole Symphony, with the opening Allegro vivace and all its variations; this movement has always been my favourite of the Symphony’s five, and is expertly played by Schmitt. When we get to the famous bit the performance is one of the best I have heard, with Christian Schmitt certainly making full use of the pedals, to make this a most exciting performance whilst still being in context of the Symphony as a whole. This is followed on the first disc by the Symphony No. 9, which along with the tenth and final symphony came as something as an afterthought. After completing No. 8, Widor thought his collection of organ symphonies complete, but ever a tinkerer, it was as he revised his symphonies that he was inspired to compose more. The Symphony No. 9 came at the inauguration of the new organ at Rouen, the very one that it is performed on here. In 1890 the first three movements were performed at St. Ouen’s, with the fourth and final movement not being composed for another five years. The nickname given by the composer to this Symphony, ‘Gothique’, refers not to the music, this despite his use of Gregorian melodies as a basis of some of his music, but rather to the architecture of the Abbey Church itself. Again, Christian Schmitt gives an excellent well measured account of this work, with the way he plays the B-A-C-H theme that Widor uses at various times throughout the work particularly fine. I was surprised to find that this symphony, along with its companion, No. 10 the Romane, are the two symphonies that I have the most recordings of, and after listening to Joseph Nolan (SIGCD347), Jeremy Filsell (CD DCA 1172) and Marie Andree Morisset-Balier (CD 10411), this new recording shines out, largely due to the better sound but also to the performance, which is well measured and controlled, especially in the running eight note motif of the opening movement, making this my preferred version of all those that I now have.

The second disc opens with Symphony No. 6, which like the Fifth, was composed for the new secular organ of the Trocadéro Palace, as part of the celebrations of the Paris World Exhibition of 1878, and which also begins with a variation first movement. It is based upon a chorale-like theme with the subsequent theme being derived from this. I find this a much more satisfying opening than that of the Fifth, and it clearly shows that Widor had more in his locker than his Toccata. The second movement, which is often regarded as one of the composer’s finest, has three distinct themes and was apparently inspired by the music of Wagner that Widor had heard during a visit to Bayreuth. The remaining three movements are fine examples of the French organ school. The scherzo-like third movement is followed by a lovely slow movement with its lengthy main theme being a highlight, especially in the way that it has satellite subsidiary themes woven into it, which are expertly brought out by Schmitt. The final movement is another crowd pleaser, with its opening, almost rocking motif leading to more energetic music. In this recording the Sixth shows that it a work that deserves to be allowed out of the shadows of the Fifth, especially with its rousing conclusion.

This is followed by the Symphony No. 10 Op. 73 ‘Romane’, which like the ‘Gothique’, has a name derived from architecture. This is the only symphony for which the autograph score survives, with Widor giving the premiere at the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche in Berlin in January 1900. It begins quite modestly with a setting of the plainchant tune Haec dies, quam fecit Dominus, a theme which recurs throughout the work, making it a sort of four movement set of variations, and which has led to the work sometimes being described as his Easter Symphony. The second movement continues the contemplative mood as does the third movement Cantilène. Lento. Indeed, it is only in the final Allegro – Andante movement that we get any real sustained fast tempo music, but even this is tempered and drawn back at times with the presentation of the Haec dies theme here being something quite wonderful. This is perhaps Widor’s most religious, and perhaps personal symphony, with the result being as compelling as his more exciting offerings.

The final disc in this set offers the listener the monumental Symphony No. 8, with this fifty-minute work being singled out as one of the highlights of the 1889 Paris Exposition. Albert described the Eighth as a “transitional work” which was “designed for the organ and yet boldly orchestral”. It was originally composed in seven movements but in the 1900-01 revision the fourth movement Prelude that set the scene for the following set of variations was withdrawn. Still, it is an imposing work with many seeing it as Widor’s finest compositional achievement, with the almost Mahlerian scope of the Symphony exhausting the possibilities of organ writing. This is a wonderful work with, for me, the fourth Variations. Andante movement forming the point on which the other movements hang, as it is here that Widor really celebrates his devotion to the music of J. S. Bach, which whilst implied elsewhere in his organ music it is explicit here, especially in his use of the passacaglia form. A wonderful work, which is here given an equally wonderful performance by Christian Schmitt, which is more compelling to that by Joseph Nolan (SIGCD337), and a worthy disc to conclude his recordings of the complete organ symphonies, both solo and with orchestra.

This is a wonderful set and a superb conclusion to Schmitt’s survey; as mentioned above, let us hope that he has the chance to record the other non-symphonic organ works, not least the curious, yet wonderful Bach’s Memento of 1925 in which Widor reflects on a number of themes from his hero’s works. The sound in all of these recordings has been excellent and this release is no different, with the hybrid SACD giving greater definition and depth to the recording. The booklet notes are also excellent and set the five symphonies presented here in the context of Widor’s output as a whole. Whilst, as already alluded to, I have a number of recordings of Widor’s organ symphonies, this will now be my go-to recording and the one I will recommend to all those seeking the complete set, or any of the single works.

Stuart Sillitoe

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