Lyon-born Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937; Signum’s annotation mistakenly reports 1834) is consigned to that unhappy band of composers known chiefly for a single piece (“Widor’s Toccata”) and, outside the arcane world of organists, few people probably have much sense of his development as a composer. Yet Widor’s life spanned more than nine decades, from the time of Rossini to the time of Messiaen and, on the evidence of this handsomely-produced set with the indefatigable Joseph Nolan at the pedal-board, there is a veritable treasure trove of startling sounds to be discovered.
Though Widor wrote extensively for other genres (the Concertos and the orchestral works are attractive and worth seeking out), his true musical legacy comes from his creative partnership with fabled organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who sidestepped the notion of the polite church organ, with its delicate clean lines, to produce monster instruments that can both penetrate and shake. Anyone who has heard the bite and visceral growling of the organ at Paris’s St Sulpice will know the unforgettable sonic singularity of that space.
Most of the (previously available) recordings here were made with the Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Église de la Madeleine in Paris. Whether by design or by practical necessity, it is instructive to hear two other Cavaillé-Coll organs in this Signum survey, notably in the Symphonie Romane (nominally Symphonie X, Opus 73) played on the organ at Saint-Sernin, Toulouse, and in some other works at Saint François de Sales in Lyon (where Widor premiered the Fifth Symphony – from which the ‘Toccata’, which he recorded – and where his father was organist). The Lyon organ is a characterful beast and entirely unmodified since its installation; the vitality of registration and teasing harmonies bring the music and instrument together, exquisitely caught by the recording.
And here one wonders about the detractors and whether they have in fact previously heard the sound that Widor intended, for his writing is inextricably tied up with the timbre and attack of Cavaillé-Coll’s ground-breaking instruments (La Madeleine has the World’s first-ever voix celeste). And one final hurdle for a would-be Widor devotee is that, of all musical genres, the organ suffers most from audio equipment which is not equal to the demands placed on it. I’ve been listening on three different systems (Linn, Meridian and Naim), and through bookshelf speakers as well as B&W 802s. At full stretch (the opening Allegro of Symphonie VI, for example), these Nolan recordings produce amongst the most gut-sawing and neighbour-busting sounds of anything I have heard. A true workout for any hi-fi set up.
Widor’s organ Symphonies are solo works though symphonic in ambition. Yet they have consistently had a poor press. Suffice to say, Nolan quashes that view with playing which is both challenging and momentous. Occasionally I’ve yearned for more forward momentum as Nolan tends to favour a stately tempo. On the other hand, though not always at first listening, I found myself drawn in. Again and again, what impresses is Nolan’s secure handling of these works’ quasi-Brucknerian architecture. Hearing a single movement in isolation does not always make its fullest impression, but invariably does within the whole.
The first two Symphonies are revealed as intellectually intricate and complex, and Nolan’s articulation is always crisp, allowing one to focus on any line at any given moment. In Symphonie I, the ‘Marche Pontificale’ is heard afresh when embodied as one of the seven movements which are all tied together polyphonically through related keys. Here Ateş Orga’s scholarly booklet essay helpfully elucidates the music’s inner workings; pointedly he summarises this as “tough music for serious minds.”
Another gem is Symphonie III, Nolan revelling in pedalled notes and creating vibrations to rock the house. The recording is relatively close, arguably sacrificing something of atmosphere, yet the near proximity to that bass rumbling penetrates the nervous system; it is utterly thrilling. And then by contrast Nolan unfurls a fey side of the mighty Madeleine organ in the charming ‘Minuet’ – which cries out to be repeated.
Many listeners will turn first to numbers V and VI. Nolan’s are broad interpretations which at moments are less overtly demonstrative than in some other versions; yet his self-effacing playing allows the music time to speak on its own terms. And if I wanted more in VIII at times, it is also simultaneously delicious how Nolan holds back, teasingly, allowing inner voices to sparkle.
I wept to the Andante sostenuto of Symphonie Gothique (i.e. the Ninth Symphony, Opus 70), Nolan finding such tenderness with lines achingly suspended before ending in judiciously ‘placed’ cadences. The imaginative registration provides a surprising intimacy, despite the cavernous space of La Madeleine – a spiritual high with music rooted in tradition, yet harmonically inventive.
This is a landmark release. The quality of Nolan’s playing, the scope of this project, and Orga’s extensive, anecdote-rich and enlightening introduction, provide an illuminating portrait of a gigantic figure whose style evolved continuously. One can only hope that this edition will lead to a full reassessment of Widor as an artist of epic grandeur and ingenuity.