These two works launched Charles-Marie Widor’s entirely new genre the organ symphony onto an entirely unsuspecting public. Hailed by Widor biographer and editor John R. Near as “the greatest contribution to organ literature since the works of Johan Sebastian Bach”, their significance was also not lost on their creator, and he returned to them at various stages in his life to revise them.
I reviewed volume 1 of this set about a year ago, and since then a new competitor has entered the field: Jan Lehtola in SACD on the Alba label (see review). With its ‘Historical Organs and Composers’ title this doesn’t look like becoming a complete cycle, and with no overlap in repertoire so far this amounts to little more than a Widor alert for fans, but Lehtola certainly looks interesting. Trawling around for releases with the same programme I came across Hans Ole Thurs on the ClassicO label CLASSCD442, who is decent enough but with by no means the panache and elegance of style shown by Joseph Nolan. There is another set on Cavaillé-Coll instruments played by Pierre Pincemaille on the Solstice label, SOCD181-85, but again I found myself missing Nolan’s refinement and subtlety. A closer candidate might be Joris Verdin on Ricercar RIC286 whose nicely recorded perspective has a similar spaciousness to that on this Signum Classics recording.
What comparing versions does reveal is Joseph Nolan’s preference for considerably slower tempi than many players. His first movement to the Organ Symphony No. 1 is 6:25 compared to Verdin’s 4:30, his second movement 7:53 to Verdin’s 5:21 and Pincemaille’s 6:10. He is a good 5 minutes longer over the entirely of the work than many of the examples I could find. These are significant extensions of Widor’s proportions which may take a little getting used to if you already familiar with these works. Nolan is by no means soggy when it comes to rhythm however, and his faster movements are satisfyingly powerful and energetic.
Slower tempi may not be to all tastes, but Joseph Nolan turns these pieces more into genuine ‘symphonies’ than many other versions I’ve heard, tuning in fully to Widor’s ambitiously grand sense of scale. Once you’ve heard the insinuating pedal lines of the opening to the Organ Symphony No. 1 and realised you’re in for something of status and importance, the path back to the bad old ways is harder than the acceptance of the new. Nolan’s view of this and other movements is more comparable with the architecture within which it’s being played, with long vistas and sweeping lines which guide the eye and conjure feelings of awe. That second movement Allegretto has a disarmingly gorgeous melody which seems matter of fact in so many other versions. Nolan’s length of line allows Widor’s lines to shimmer and unfurl like a rainbow in a gentle wind. The weak point for me in this work has always been the incredibly corny Marche pontificale, and while Nolan’s impressive performance does its best to rise above the rather crass inevitably of the movement it alas remains a curate’s egg in a basket of gems. Just hear the magical and luminous colour in the Méditation and the imperiously brilliant counterpoint of the Finale which follow and Widor is immediately forgiven.
The Organ Symphony No. 2 is a bit shorter than the first, and as Ates Orga points out in the booklet notes it is less overtly polyphonic, emphasising the tone colour of these remarkable French organs. Nolan’s broad view of the music continues here, allowing the warm tones of the instrument in La Madeleine to develop and undulate with a natural sounding and organic character. The playful nature of the Pastorale is nicely expressed, and the longest movement, the marvellously constructed Andante is painted with generously broad strokes of enticingly restrained hues. The Salve Regina could perhaps be a bit more Allegro but the pedal entry is pretty thrilling, as is the following sprightly Scherzo which takes up any slack. Not given much attention in the booklet, the penultimate Adagio is one of my favourite Widor movements, full of quirky cadences and the occasional blue note dropped in nonchalantly as if by accident. The vibrato-laden tones of the organ are perfectly attuned to the music’s times, filtering down to the desiccated wreaths which adorn those ancient tombs in the crypt, this mood swept away with a rousing toccata in the Finale – Allegro.
Joseph Nolan’s cycle of Widor organ symphonies is one I know I will have to collect in its entirety but then, I knew that after the first volume. His approach to these works balances that fine line between extending the boundaries of standard performance practice while avoiding performances which linger excessively. His breadth of view gives Widor’s music its full expressive weight without wallowing, entirely respecting the composer’s idiom and the musical values of his environment while pointing out the sheer proto-Mahlerian scale of some movements and each work as a whole. The recording is, as all of these will be having been recorded in a single week, warmly communicative and an accurate portrayal of a magnificent instrument in its monumental acoustic. Not too much detail is lost, but neither is every set of pipes racked up in front of your face in an attempt to create something overly and artificially spectacular. This looks like shaping up to be the Widor Organ Symphonies cycle of the decade.
The first volume of Nolan’s survey of all the Widor organ symphonies unsurprisingly dispatched the most popular numbers (5 & 6). Volume 2 features the first two symphonies. While ground-breaking in their symphonic concept, Widor’s ideas are still developing in an exploration of different tonal and structural possibilities. In the wrong hands these disparate movements can lack cohesion, but there is no doubting that Nolan’s great affinity with this music really lifts the notes off the page. The organ of La Madeleine is beautiful in the softer movements, but I couldn’t help longing for Widor’s instrument at St Sulpice in the tutti passages, which would deliver more grandeur and clarity.
The first volume in this series had coupled the sixth and fifth symphonies, both probably better known than the first and second, even to regular followers of organ concerts.
The first symphony was worked on regularly by the composer over many years and appears in five different versions. Though the notes are extensive they do not tell us which version Joseph Nolan is playing – not that that need inhibit our enjoyment of his performance. The symphony is in fact seven loosely connected and contrasted movements, which give the organist many opportunities to demonstrate not only his technical finesse but the splendid range and subtlety of the Madeleine Cavaille-Coll. Just consider the wonderful contrast as Joseph Nolan moves from the gentle, floating phrases of the Allegretto to the skittish playfulness and power of the Intermezzo. The Marche pontificale (like the Toccata from the 5th symphony) is certainly more familiar and here given a rousing, full-blooded romp which fires the blood.
The second symphony goes even further in its demands for range and texture, with movements vying for our attention. The Pastorale is particularly effective, the solo voice ringing out in the vibrant acoustic like a pipe across the valleys. By contrast the Salve Regina seems to hark back to the baroque in both style and registration, the organ coping brilliantly with both. The bright reeds come into their own for the vibrant Scherzo, before a haunting Adagio and the final Allegro which deserves to be as well known as the more popular finale to the fifth!
The notes give us appropriate background to the compositions, but the analysis may be a little too technical for the non-organ buff.
Given the rich acoustic of La Madeleine there is no such thing as silence. When the music dies there is still a very strong sense of place. A pity then that the engineers have chosen to cut off each movement with actual silence, rather than allow us to stay in the building, as we would in a live performance.
Why did Widor entitle the sixth movement of his second symphony Adagio and then direct it to be played Andante? Still, Symphonie is a misnomer too in the general absence of movements in Sonata form. Moving on, though…
Unerringly Cavaillé-Coll and a superb acoustic ambience captivate and grab us – by the ears and indeed by the throat [lumps in the] from bar one. Unbounded admiration, as Widor judges to a nicety the moment to call forth Swell reeds. Delightful acciaccaturas adorn the high flute melodies of the ensuing Allegr[ett?]o. The energetic Intermezzo harks forward to the Intermezzo of the Sixth Symphony. It too belies its title by sounding more important than its surroundings. The Adagio astounds with the gorgeous positif gambas and celestial voices. so to the preposterous "Pontiff’s Progress"! Terrific! Maybe a little terrifying … pompous swagger meets subject incorporating all 12 semitones randomly in its wayward course. The end is serious, uncompromising, no tierce from Picardy relieves its final cadence.
Symphonie 2 offers equal delight. This version incorporates the anomalous-seeming Salve Regina movement substituted in the 1901 edition, as well as the chirpy Scherzo it replaced. The recording clarity is remarkable, only final chords revealing that we have been enjoying the fruits of some six seconds of reverberation. Joseph Nolan – formerly organist of St James’s Palace, and, from 2008, of Perth Cathedral, Australia – is an utterly persuasive executant at the console. Thoroughly enjoyable.