Those of you who still haven’t cottoned onto the idea that Widor wrote a hell of a lot of brilliant organ music, most of it far superior to that Toccata, really need to hear this third volume in UK-born Perth-based organist Joseph Nolan’s recordings of Widor’s ten organ symphonies, part of his traversal of the composer’s complete works for organ.
Like the previous two highly acclaimed volumes, this one’s been recorded on the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ of La Madeleine, Paris. Cavaillé-Coll was a friend of Widor’s and the composer’s music is inextricably linked to his instruments, which Widor played throughout his career.
The four organ symphonies which comprise Opus 13 were first published in 1872 and later dedicated to Cavaillé-Coll. Taken together, the Symphony No 3 in E Minor and the Symphony No 4 in F Minor form a contrasting diptych, the more overt romanticism of the first contrasting with the neo-Baroque qualities of the second. Both however are equally imbued with delicacy and drama – qualities that are brought to the fore by Nolan with such nuance and insight that you feel you learn more about Widor by listening to these performances than reading any number of biographies of the composer.
The Third Symphony opens with a grand Prélude whose descending chromatic figures unwrap an ominous sculptural edifice which opens out to the sunshine of a delicate Minuetto before a thunderous triumphal Marcia is itself overcome, like Mars by Venus, by an exquisitely diffuse Adagio. A toccata-like Finale brings proceedings to a close in skeins of swirling arpeggios.
The Fourth Symphony opens in equally grand fashion with a French-overture style Toccata, propelled forward by dotted rhythms and roulades, leading to a sensitively-lit four-part fugue the complexity of which contrasts sharply with an Andante cantabile of disarming sweetness and simplicity. Birds hopping amid fretwork and arabesques characterise the following Scherzo, which has its own faux-naïve pendant in the form of a placid Adagio. The symphony ends as grandly as it began with a massive, orchestrally-conceived Finale.
Nolan again proves himself to be every bit as adept at orchestration as Widor, his choice of stops and registrations evincing a palette designed to both clarify and delight. The same could be said of his phrasing and articulation, as tasteful in the conception as they are perfect in the execution. With some of the finest Widor playing on disc, this is a hugely pleasurable release and I look forward to the next volume with much anticipation.
This is proving to be a highly impressive series, and one which you can return to with confidence, knowing that the performances will come up fresh on each hearing. The two symphonies on this disc may not be the most popular but repay careful listening. Joseph Nolan’s approach is studied without being over academic and he allows us to follow the structure of each symphony and to sense where Widor is leading us. Widor’s own comment you must give the organ time to breate and speak seems to lie at the heart of the recording, for we are aware of the atmosphere in La Madeleine before and during the individual movements. There is a real sense of a live performance rather than the cut and paste of many earlier recordings.
The dynamic changes within the church are impressive. Listen to the over-powering impact of the Marcia in the third symphony, followed by the reflective Adagio. Nothing sentimental or insipid in the quieter registration, but a real sensitivity towards the quieter voicing. Equally pleasing are the gentle Andante cantabile of the fourth symphony before the skittering of the Scherzo and the blazing finale. If you have not got the rest of the series – do so!
Joseph Nolan’s excellent cycle of Widor’s organ symphonies continues with volume 3 … Not only are the qualities of this series already making it a declared winner for the complete symphonies, but I have it on good authority that Signum has commissioned recordings of the entire organ works of Widor from Joseph Nolan, with further pieces already recorded and plans for a disc of Widor’s transcriptions to be made at the huge church and organ of St Sernin, Toulouse. In other words, those faithful to this Signum cycle will also be rewarded with enough extras to make an uber-complete Widor organ set, almost certainly to be available before the end of 2014.
As has been noted in previous volumes, Joseph Nolan’s timings for these works and their individual movements are almost invariably longer than those you will find in currently available versions. Whether or not you find this initially discomforting will depend on your familiarity and investment in other recordings, but even if you have to make some minor adjustment I sincerely believe you will swiftly come to appreciate the care taken by Joseph Nolan with his tempi. Where some recordings can seem to turn these works into something more akin to a suite of movements, Nolan brings out the symphonic breadth and weight of Widor’s compositions, allowing the structure and development to emerge and unfold in a most impressive way. Just take the first movement of the Symphony No. 3, which resolves massively over two minutes through its final pedal tone onto a single note. I’ve made the point before, but these are performances which really reflect and resemble the architecture of the environment for which they were written, as well as putting such a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument to the best use imaginable.
Nolan gives the second movement Minuetto a light and almost witty airing, the transparent warm-up to another huge Widor statement, the Marcia, which “unleashes hewn majesty but isn’t all about unrestrained volume.” Ates Orga’s notes provide some interesting harmonic features to look out for in this and other movements, but in any case this is a highly satisfying organ workout, managing to convey massive sonics which retaining plenty of the detail required to hear the actual notes. The lilting pastorale of the Adagio fourth movement is given beautiful lyrical legato by Nolan, the natural flow of the lines and harmony all linked in an unforced embrace which sweeps you gently to the Finale: Allegro Molto, one of Widor’s more urgent and exciting creations, its multi-layered complexities accommodated well by Nolan’s superb technique.
The Fourth Symphony opens with one of Widor’s most distinctive themes, described in the booklet as “a single-dotted-rhythm ‘French overture’ Toccata”, but also given a distinctly Teutonic feel through the measured pace of Nolan’s approach. Once again, he convinces in a performance which is orientated towards creating drama and magnificent clarity in la Madeleine’s vast acoustic, a deliberate and intelligently paced unfurling of masterful organ music which is continued in the Fugue. Unmannered simplicity is reflected in the expressive Andante cantabile, the little call and response features and unusual harmonic wrinkles performed with a kind of self-explanatory assurance which says ‘how else would you want to hear this?’ The scampering runs of the Scherzo make up another favourite movement, given an almost secretive character through the round, mellifluous sound emerging from the initial stop selection. Nasal, churchy voix humaine reeds intone the beginning of the Adagio fifth movement, contrasting gloriously with the deceptive sections which follow, which are simultaneously chorale-like and rich in counterpoint. The Finale to this work can sound a little like a rocket launch and it certainly opens impressively here, though Nolan manages to make the initial bars sound like a curtain-raiser which promises more to come.
Another extremely fine organ recording, this will be a ‘must-have’ for collectors of this series, and no-one will be disappointed. With recording dates a couple of months later than the first two volumes, I have the feeling this session has delivered a little more detail in the organ sound than the first two volumes. This is a marginal impression and not a criticism of the other discs, but on a quick comparison I feel just a little closer to the pipes with volume 3, without losing the gorgeously atmospheric feel of the other symphonies. Perhaps this was nothing more than a change in the weather conditions between sessions – air quality can after all have its effect in such an environment. Either way, I’ve loved all of these releases and await further instalments with everything bated.