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Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937) Complete Organ Works
Joseph Nolan (organ)
rec 2011-14, La Madeleine, Paris; Saint François de Sales, Lyon; Saint Sernin, Toulouse SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD596 [8 CDs: 458:52]
Firstly I must apologise: Joseph Nolan’s use of three magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instruments demands that these exceptional discs are experienced through speakers for review purposes, but living as I do with a wife who regards loud organ music as grounds for divorce (ours was a registry office wedding), the lockdown has rendered it rather difficult to complete a listening task I started months ago. Belatedly then, the wave of fine weather that has landed in Lancashire has finally enabled me to finish the job. I must also confess that listening to lots of Widor over a relatively short period can be counterproductive – one can certainly have too much of a good thing.
Nolan sets out his rationale for recording the cycle in a delightful introductory ‘welcome’ in the booklet – central is his desire to communicate the symphonic nature of this music. I have certainly enjoyed what I have heard of Widor hitherto (especially the two later ‘unnumbered’ symphonies) but have thus far found it difficult to escape the view that these works are essentially suites of diffuse movements, especially when compared, for example to the more thematically cohesive symphonies of Louis Vierne, Widor’s younger compatriot. I’m sure it’s a perception that has inevitably been shaped, at least partially by the popularity of one bleeding chunk in particular.
The individual discs in Nolan’s cycle have received fulsome praise on this site – I have provided links where appropriate. Colleagues (Dominy Clements especially) have provided detailed analyses and illuminating comparisons to alternative recordings which demonstrate an exceptional appreciation of this repertoire although I hope readers will embrace the main thrust of my approach which is to introduce the works as well as considering the merits of Joseph Nolan’s set as a whole.
To facilitate navigation it may be useful to briefly summarise Widor’s hefty contribution to the organ repertoire (I was rather surprised it wasn’t actually bigger – there are only eight official opus numbers involved across these eight discs, extraordinary when one considers the perceived primacy of this composer’s organ output compared to his countless works for other forces). In this regard I am indebted to Ateş Orga’s magisterial notes for this set. The first four numbered symphonies (Op 13) date from 1872; they appeared to come as if from nowhere, and Orga cites Widor’s most comprehensive biographer John R Near who has suggested that the composer’s weekly improvisations at Saint-Sulpice (he was the resident organist there for 63 years!) supplied much of their thematic material. The symphonies numbered 5-8 constitute the Op 42 set but while the fifth and sixth emerged in 1879, just seven years after Op 13 there is already, to my ears at least, an increase in symphonic cohesion. Nos 7 and 8 are the biggest in the cycle and appeared another 8 years later in 1887. Each of them occupies a disc to themselves.
The arrival of the two (usually) un-numbered symphonies, the Gothique of 1895 (Op 70) and the Romane of 1900 (Op 73) mark the clearest shift in Widor’s style, whereby Gregorian plainchant is admitted as a source of influence for the first time. There was then a hiatus in organ composition which lasted quarter of a century; in 1925 he produced Bach’s Memento (without opus number) - a set of a half-dozen ‘free paraphrase-transcriptions’ designed as a homage to Widor’s most abiding influence. His final major organ sequence, the Suite Latine, Op 86 followed in 1927 and again makes use of Gregorian themes, before the succinct Trois Nouvelles Pièces, Op 87 of 1930 proved to be Widor’s swansong for the instrument. The Signum set is completed by two brief pieces from earlier in Widor’s career; the Marche Nuptiale Op 64 extracted from a theatre production of 1890, and an earlier Marche Américaine, Op 31 No 11 (1876).
The numbered symphonies were recorded over seven nights at the Madeleine during what must have been an intense week in May 2011 – Nolan describes this adventure in his note. Orga regards the Symphony No 1 as a kind of template for the form, and to my ears it certainly sounds more tentative than its siblings. The pedalled theme that emerges in the Prelude is Bachian and its initial progress seems rather bleary-eyed although it awakes steadily and builds to a point where one realises that Nolan’s conception has stateliness, breadth, and most crucially for this Andante panel, real momentum (compare this to Wolfgang Rübsam’s recent account on Naxos (8.574161) – a minute fleeter but it doesn’t sound that way). The Allegretto’s fine melody is modestly clothed but conveyed with great clarity – the first evidence of the Madeleine instrument’s alluring colours. The Allegro proffers real excitement – Nolan’s articulation of its rapid semiquavers is almost Gouldian and epitomises the potential of matching this performer with this instrument. The Adagio is rather inscrutable although the delicate pastels which can easily descend into homogeneity in Widor seem distinct and autumnal here. In his review of the original single disc of Nolan’s account of the first two symphonies Dominy Clements described the Marche Pontificale as “the weak point in the work” and “incredibly corny” – he’s not wrong and I can’t think of a parallel elsewhere in the cycle, but one surely has to cut Widor some slack in this ‘tryout’ symphony- in any case Nolan douses it in sufficient fire to excuse its cheesy excesses. The reined-in intensity of the little Meditation exudes a strange, Faurean glow before a thrilling Allegro finale, built upon a Bachian fugue but drenched in Lisztian chromaticism conveys a real sense of arrival, its lines emerging unscathed and with diamantine clarity in this fastidiously prepared and superbly recorded account. An auspicious start, for sure.
Nolan restores Widor’s original Scherzo (excised from his 1901 revision) into his account of the D major Symphony No 2. Here it is placed fifth, following the Salve Regina – Allegro movement which replaced it in the revision. In his note Nolan alludes to Ben van Oosten’s highly regarded Widor cycle for MDG. The first single disc in that series (MDG 3160401- the cycle was never released as a boxed set) includes an account of the Symphony No 2 which presents the Scherzo as a pendant after the finale; otherwise the recent versions I have accessed (Rübsam on Naxos and Christian Schmitt on CPO - review) retain the six movement structure of the revision. If Nolan’s seven movement sequence appears unwieldy on paper, it certainly doesn’t sound that way - indeed the work seems considerably more ‘symphonic’ than its predecessor. Nolan tastefully draws out the subtle harmonic shifts of the weirdly hypnotic opening Praeludium circulare before a change of scenery in the form of a delightful Pastorale comes into view. Here a tangy rustic melody hovers above a rocking pulse. Orga suggests Berlioz as well as Bach is integral to the movement’s DNA. The Andante is an extended, pivotal movement; Nolan is happy to linger in its intricate maze of unpredictable modulations and its aura of consoling mystery. He amplifies an early Gregorian flavour in the tune of the Salve Regina – the transition to its closing bars is magnificently realised. The original Scherzo is a jaunty, carol-like confection treated fugally. The sixth movement was apparently conceived originally for the voix humaine alone but remains atmospheric and twilit in its revised registration, while the symphony concludes with a taut Allegro toccata, perhaps not as melodically distinctive as its renowned counterpart in the fifth symphony, but it’s spectacularly coloured and played here. Its quirky ending is appropriately garish. What strikes one most obviously after the first disc is the extent to which Nolan renders Widor’s slower music as more distinctive and memorable than one had previously imagined.
The third and fourth symphonies seem more streamlined; I suspect many listeners will find them more digestible than the first two. The Symphony No 3 in E minor (eventually reduced from six to five movements) is the more obviously ‘symphonic’ of the pair and begins with a broadly conceived Moderato which constitutes its longest panel. It unfolds chromatically from a sustained pedal and builds inexorably into something suitably gothic. There is a subtlety to Nolan’s delivery which draws out fascinating details and contrasts; it exudes a dark grandiosity which owes little to volume per se. The colours here are far removed from anything in the first two symphonies – its gigantic resolution sounds stunning. The elegant, self-effacing Minuetto conceals a wealth of ornate detail and provides a sudden change of mood. The Marcia’s shattering opening chords blow away any remaining cobwebs. Here the Madeleine beast is finally unleashed but as Ateş Orga’s contends there’s never a sense either in Widor’s scoring of this majestic movement (or indeed in Nolan’s vivid performance) of volume for volume’s sake- there’s a varied and ingenious harmonic scheme to be enjoyed. A brief lilting Adagio provides a comforting balm before a propulsive, urgent Allegro finale of rather complex design brings down the curtain, its twisting progressions clarified by Nolan’s attentive, yet fluent performance.
The Symphony No 4 is even more compact and incorporates six movements of similar dimensions. Orga likens it to a kind of neo-baroque suite, perhaps it could be dubbed a ‘Classical’ Symphony. The initial gestures of the brief opening Toccata are clear and direct, definitively Bachian and built upon the single dotted rhythm typical of the ‘French overture’ style – although a curious chromatic run prior to its end seems rather out of place. The fugal Moderato is less imposing and is neatly articulated by Nolan in his typically unhurried manner which allows the listener to appreciate more of this Cavaillé-Coll’s softer hues. I’m afraid I can’t get over a whiff of Victorian sentimentality in the winsome melody of the Andante cantabile but one certainly can’t argue with Nolan’s tactful articulation, nor with his fleet fingerwork in the unashamedly Mendelssohnian Scherzo which follows, with its delightfully insouciant coda. Having read Dominy Clements’ review of the relevant single disc of this issue it’s also difficult to avoid the adjective ‘nasal’ in the characterisation of the voix humaine which for better or worse dominates the sound of the fifth movement Adagio – it’s not my favourite timbre in this set. Nolan is at last allowed to let rip (up to a point) in the exciting yet tautly controlled finale, another Widor movement filled with unexpected harmonic twists and turns.
Orga reinforces John R Near’s view that the fifth and sixth symphonies together constitute the pivots into Widor’s second creative phase but contrasts the “variation procedure” of the former with the “sonata discipline” of the latter. The famous Symphony No 5 shares the F minor key of its direct predecessor and encompasses an epic five movement design. While I would never want to be without Simon Preston’s thrilling, cleanly recorded 1983 account from Westminster Abbey (now on DG Originals 479192-6 – it’s an old friend and was my entrée into the organ symphony form), Nolan’s reading is broader and surely more in tune with the sounds Widor originally had in mind. There is a palpable lightness of touch applied to the opening of the Allegro vivace and a seamless flow between the subsequent variations – the pellucid Cavaillé-Coll colours Nolan conjures could have been devised for this music. His conception of the movement’s architecture incorporates profound logic. His treatment of the gently flowing second movement is abundantly transparent and more importantly more cantabile than both Preston and Christian Schmitt on CPO (review) while the central Andantino, quasi allegretto is a winning synthesis of momentum and mystery. The brief Adagio is understated, a softening-up exercise for Nolan’s serious-minded and noble Toccata, an unusually moving reading of amplitude and breadth which fits perfectly into the scheme of the whole symphony and absolutely eschews empty showmanship.
The Symphony No 6 in G minor also comprises five movements. Its muscular opening is truly thrilling and presages a compelling journey which alternates florid contrapuntal complexity with chordal grandeur. Anyone who has a preconception of late 19th century French organ fare as indigestible stodge should hear this; Nolan’s dazzling reading of this panel will shatter it – the closing pages are a highlight of the set. It’s followed by an Adagio, another of those rose-scented, nostalgic slow movements which could easily pass one by, but not in this attentive, humane presentation. The rapid staccato runs of the Intermezzo provide another challenge for Nolan’s fingers; it precedes the strange, nocturnal Cantabile whose other-worldly strains provide a haven for reflection. The concluding Vivace provides another startling contrast; virile, martial and rather pompous, it makes for yet more riveting listening.
The last pair of numbered symphonies are huge beasts which might daunt the naïve listener; these discs have provided me with my first opportunity to hear either. Orga provides an apt context for their monumentality by identifying the contemporaneity of Brahms’ 4th and Bruckner’s 7th and 8th symphonies. Dominy Clements’ review of the original release of these two discs demonstrates both considerable familiarity with the music and enviable technical understanding and I commend it to serious Widorophiles. On the surface at least, there seems to be far less of the sentimentality that seeps into the first six symphonies. Both symphonies have six movements. A terse Moderato opens the Symphony No 7 in A minor, its angular theme unexpectedly Brucknerian although the Germanic seriousness of the harmonic content which builds is occasionally leavened by more obviously Gallic combinations. This will surely seem more monumental - even academic – to innocent ears; it could almost be the work of another composer. It ends abruptly in a most un-Brucknerian way. The Andante is a sober Choral which inhabits a world of muted pastels and long shadows, its intervening patternings are both ornate and long breathed. This style is almost unrecognisable from the Widor of just fifteen years before – Orga finds parallels in both Haydn and more interestingly in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. Its concluding bars glow sepulchrally. Nolan projects the indisputably Mendelssohnian cut of the third movement, though some of its piquant harmonies and tart colourings betray a darker underbelly than might be expected. As Orga points out, the étude-like stylings of the gentle Allegro non troppo are unusually pianistic; the arpeggiated backdrop against which the sustained melodies unfold actually recall Saint-Saëns’ Aquarium – its sense of repose comes as something of a relief in the context of the whole. The penultimate movement is marked Lento (not Largo as stated in the booklet’s track listing) and Nolan maintains the spirit of calm conveyed in the previous movement before the big Allegro Vivace finale, whose imposing first bars trigger a sequence of episodes which seem to alternate between full-on grandeur and intricate elaboration. Over its three-quarter hour duration the Symphony No 7 emerges as a tightly-built and surprisingly coherent structure, it enormous latent power is harnessed most effectively by Nolan.
The Symphony No 8 is even more imposing. John R Near is quoted again by Orga: “With the Mahlerian scope of the Eighth Symphony, Widor seems to have exhausted the possibilities of his instrument, as well as his own compositional technique.” Originally a heptade, the original fourth movement, a prelude to the mighty variations which followed was withdrawn in Widor’s 1901 revision. The very opening of the symphony – the first movement is marked Allegro Risoluto - is bold and bare and more than hints at the subsequent monumentality. Nor is that long delayed with the first of the movement’s three massive climaxes at 1:58. There is something even more Brucknerian about this structure than in anything in the seventh symphony, and to be honest, having now heard it twice I found it rather impenetrable and dense despite Nolan’s attempts to clarify the textures. It was a similar story when I sampled Schmitt’s CPO version (review) which was recorded on another Cavaillé-Coll instrument beloved of the composer (the Abbey Church of St. Ouen in Rouen). A gentle Moderato Cantabile constitutes an attractive foil – its tune quite as lovely as anything else in Widor’s canon. The third movement is a rather more conventional Allegro which inhabits rather shadowy Mendelssohnian terrain. Many Widor buffs seem to agree that the deceptively coyly titled Variations - Andante is the finest single movement in his entire output- it is certainly the longest -just shy of fourteen minutes in this reading. In reality it is a huge passacaglia to which those who enjoy Bach’s works of this form will readily respond. There are two enormous climaxes and it is difficult to imagine it being more convincingly paced or vividly coloured it is here. The hues Nolan finds for the variation starting around 8:40 seem quite unearthly. (My favourite organ work of all is Carl Nielsen’s late masterpiece Commotio – on this evidence I imagine hearing this organist on this instrument in that work would be something else!). I found the quietude conveyed by the following Adagio appealing if elusive – Orga uses the phrase “complex and simple” – it needs more than a couple of listens to make sense of it in the great scheme of this work. The Tempo giusto finale is excitingly brought to life by Nolan. Its weird chromatic digressions twist and challenge – they are a test of concentration for both performer and listener, but in musical terms to my mind it falls well short of the magnificent fourth movement. Notwithstanding the fine playing then, this behemoth probably requires a bit more work on my part; in holistic terms it didn’t seem to cohere as convincingly as the seventh symphony.
One of my favourite organ discs over the last decade has been the Norwegian organist Bjørn Boysen’s cleanly recorded account of Widor’s final two symphonies, the Gothique, Op 70 (sometimes labelled No 9) and the Romane, Op 73 (No 10) performed on the remodelled Francophile Frobenius instrument at Aarhus Cathedral, Denmark (review). Nolan’s conception of both works is arguably more authentic in sonic terms, but I suppose it’s difficult to let go of recordings that one acquires purely by chance and with which one ends up falling in love. At the turn of the 20th century Widor revisited the organ symphony form and produced these more compact works, each in four movements. Both project a degree of modality (and modernity) that is absent from the numbered symphonies through their appropriation of Gregorian themes. They remain my favourite Widor pieces, and it is good to hear Nolan’s thoughts. They are tougher, less perfumed works. The Gothique was written for the Rouen instrument Christian Schmitt used in his CPO recording (coupled with the eighth symphony inter alia, see the link to the review above). Its opening Moderato is thorny and relatively ‘contemporary’. Listeners hearing it blind will be astonished it is by Widor. It reaches a knotty, volcanic climax at 4:03 – frankly Boysen’s attempts don’t approach the level of excitement created by Nolan. One becomes more aware of the creepy ‘tread’ in the bass as the panel proceeds. If the haunting colouration of the Andante sostenuto is more obviously Widor-like, its meandering melodic twists convey a sense of tentativeness and ambiguity. The Gregorian elements (the introit Puer natus est provides the raw materials) are made manifest in a rollicking Allegro which fizzes with a winning festive abandon here and in the extended, reined-in Toccata finale, a series of convoluted variations to many of whose exposed lines Nolan applies distinctive, subtle shadings. It builds inexorably towards what appears to be a spectacular coda which ultimately melts into to a rapt reprise of the introit. Nolan’s pacing of this transition is immaculate.
As for the Symphonie Romane, Joseph Nolan explains in his note that he was given an eleventh hour opportunity to record it on the same Cavaillé-Coll instrument at Saint-Sernin, Toulouse for which it was written, and this replaced his original Madeleine account which will presumably remain in the Signum vaults. On hearing the initial bars of the Romane one is immediately aware of a less ’fusty’ countenance. As its name suggests, Gregorian strains inhabit the whole of this symphony. Here Yuletide yields to Easter, as the gradual Haec Dies inhabits each of the movements. The opening Moderato is a tautly conceived, elaborate panel which builds from the statement of the chant’s initial motif over a pedal. This movement seems decidedly more contemporary in Nolan’s transparent reading than its 1899 dating might suggest. The Choral proceeds over a rather world-weary descending four-note motif in the bass – the pellucidity of its expression seems to arise from textures which seem sparse on first hearing but reveal far more detail on closer inspection. The delicate, modally inflected Cantilene anticipates the language of both Maurice Duruflé and Marcel Dupré and settles the listener before the mighty Finale, a magnificent and varied edifice which ends on a more subdued note. There is little to choose here between Boysen and Nolan; for my money the clean organ sound and visionary interpretation in each case more than suit Widor’s prescient inspiration.
So much for the symphonies; in this splendid box Joseph Nolan provides a complete conspectus of Widor’s oeuvre for the organ which involves two final discs. The most important of his later works is the understated Suite Latine of 1927, three of whose six movements again display the influence of Gregorian plainchant. In the gnomic Praeludium the venerable composer keeps his cards close to his chest and drops careful hints of a lifetime of fully-absorbed experience – it exudes neo-classical grace. The austere melody that opens the Beatus Vir is plainly Gregorian in origin – this is a calm movement of profound concentration entirely devoid of extraneous décor. The Lamento is resigned and seems to project a wistful half-smile rather than undiluted sadness- does its concluding phrase hint at a Debussy Prelude? In Ave Maris Stella the composer plays about, at times almost mischievously with the eponymous Marian hymn.The fifth movement is a delicately layered Adagio whose subtleties only emerge with familiarity. The action of the Saint-Sernin instrument is most apparent in these two movements but frankly adds to rather than detracts from the ambience. Widor saves any fireworks for the florid Lauda Sion finale; Nolan produces an imaginatively coloured and elegantly tiered account which blends restraint and affirmation.
By 1934 Widor was 90; having retired from Saint-Sulpice the previous year he laid down what were to be his final thoughts for his beloved instrument in the form of the Trois Nouvelles Pièces, Op. 87. Listeners may detect something valedictory in their tone, but they certainly don’t seem gravid with personal angst. Their titles translate as ‘Yesterday’s Classical’ ‘Mystical’ and ‘Today’s Classical’ respectively. The first is pleasant, rather four-square in manner; the last is certainly more mobile, rather enigmatic in mood and dominated by the Toulouse organ’s appealing flutes. In between is Mystique, scented and nostalgic. They represent no more than an elegant sign-off. Nolan does his best for them.
A decade or so earlier Widor had produced a set of six ‘paraphrase-transcriptions’ of Bach movements drawn from the master’s keyboard works, cantatas and in the case of the last the St Matthew Passion. This sequence, Bach’s Memento features on the final disc in the box. The second and third pieces derive respectively from the D minor and E minor Preludes from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier; they are effectively free adaptations which stray some way from the originals but their clean, clear lines certainly retain their Bachian purity. In the fourth Widor takes arguably Bach’s most famous cantata melody (from Wachet Auf, BWV 140) for a bit of a walk and manages to cunningly disguise the tune. The last movement is a powerful re-working of the closing chorus of the St Matthew Passion. Nolan’s crystalline playing (and the crisp Signum recording) certainly elevate the sequence, but truth be told it’s little more than a worthy off-cut from Widor’s workbench. The set finally concludes with two showpieces; a Marche Américaine from 1876, originally a feuillet for piano and transcribed by Marcel Dupré in 1939, and a jolly Wedding March from 1890 which the composer rescued from his incidental music for a production of Dorchain’s comedy Conte d’Avril and re-worked for organ two years later. Both are agreeable examples of Widor’s lighter side and are stirringly played here.
I imagine many organophiles will have been acquiring Joseph Nolan’s superb Widor series as each individual volume has materialised. While Nolan himself is keen to pay tribute to Ben van Oosten’s pioneering Widor series for MDG (I’m afraid I’ve never heard it) I cannot imagine the Dutchman surpasses Nolan’s consistently outstanding playing on these discs or his thoughtful, illuminating approach to this fascinating repertoire. There is serious intent in the broad tempi Nolan reliably selects, and one senses a profound sense of duty on his part to reveal the most intricate details of Widor’s scores. Hearing the two biggest symphonies for the first time provided valuable lockdown home education in my case. The Cavaillé-Coll instruments selected to do the job sound utterly magnificent, whilst Signum’s recording is detailed, warm, spectacular when required but never exaggeratedly so. The excellent documentation sets the seal on this benchmark set – if you don’t have the single discs, do not hesitate in acquiring it.
Contents CD1 (review of original release)
Organ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op.13 No. 1 (1872) [40:25]
Organ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 13 No. 2 (1872) [37:36] CD2 (review of original release)
Organ Symphony No. 3 in E minor, Op. 13 No. 3 (1872) [33:24]
Organ Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 13 No. 4 (1872) [31:39] CD3 (review of original release)
Organ Symphony No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42 No. 1 (1879) [37:32]
Organ Symphony No. 6 in G minor, Op. 42 No. 2 (1879) [35:00] CD 4& 5 (review of original release)
Organ Symphony No. 7 in A minor, Op. 42 No. 3 (1887) [45:54]
Organ Symphony No. 8 in B major, Op. 42 No. 4 (1887) [52:44] CD6 (review of original release) Symphonie Gothique in C minor, Op 70 (1895) [29:22] Symphonie Romane in D major, Op 73 (1899) [32:47] CD7 Suite Latine, Op.86 (1927) [34:10] Trois Nouvelles Pièces, Op. 87 (1934) [13:53] CD8
Bach’s Memento (1925) [24:43] Marche Américaine, Op 31 No 11 (1876 – transcribed Dupré 1939) [3:54] Marche Nuptiale , Op 64 (Conte d’Avril No 6) (1890) [5:49]