This is volume four in Joseph Nolan’s widely acclaimed journey through the complete organ works of Charles-Marie Widor. The Perth organist’s high standards show no signs of slipping, with magnificent accounts of Symphonies Nos 7 and 8.
Widor wrote these two symphonies between 1886 and 1887. These and the previous two (published 1879) comprise the composer’s Opus 42, which after its initial publication in 1887 was to go through a further five editions. Massive in their structure and conception, 7 and 8 are more consciously symphonic in a late Romantic sense and less suite-like than some of the earlier symphonies.
Nolan, formerly of Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal, St. James’ Palace and Master of Music at St. George’s Cathedral Perth, was recently made Associate Conductor and Head of Chorus at WA Opera. It’s an appointment that will not only further his development, but allow him to exercise an aural imagination which thrives on maximising colour and texture in order to elucidate line and form – as he does here.
Again playing the superb organ of La Madeleine in Paris, which has no less than 60 stops and 4426 pipes, Nolan bathes the dramatic opening Moderato of the A Minor Symphony No 7 in a stained glass light of glowing registrations. He then makes his way to the astonishing Finale via movements such as the Allegro non troppo, the pianistically-conceived nature of which Ates Orga alludes to in the booklet notes, and a sublime Largo. Both feature playing of enormous subtlety and technical control.
The Symphony No 8 in B Major is likewise full of colour and nuance, qualities that are most readily apparent in the lyrical second movement. But if the fourth movement Passacaglia encapsulates Nolan’s determination to achieve maximum cohesion through maximum differentiation, it’s in the unbridled energy of the minor key finale that we find him at his most dramatically persuasive.
Readers of MWI will have spotted my enthusiasm for the previous volumes in this series: see reviews of with Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3. This fourth volume shares its recording dates with the third in the series, and the balance between colourful detail and acoustic atmosphere is every bit as good as with all of the other symphonies so far.
If you’ve never heard these pieces before you are in for a real treat. I’ve never heard the opening Moderato of the Seventh Symphony sound so heroic and sparkling. There is always the risk that this music can end up rather bombastic, but there is so much energetic brightness in the Madeleine church on this occasion that the effects are no short of breathtaking. I clocked Joseph Nolan’s tempo in the opening of the second movement as closer to quarter-note/crotchet = 42 rather than the marked 52, but a broader approach is something I’ve become accustomed to and to appreciate from this performer. Beautiful sound and a marvellous legato fluidity turn this into something I doubt Widor would have argued with, and the contrast this generates with the Andante variations further along makes for another masterly reading. Nolan appreciates the need for forward motion in the lyrical dance which opens the third movement, so he is only a touch under the 54 marking, and the gently swinging one-in-a-bar is elegantly Gallic. Only a fairly small detail, but there is a little controversy further along where the sustained trumpet notes are marked Piano, but the registration holds sternly onto what might generously be termed a Forte – bearing in mind that the opening of the second movement is also marked Forte – this rather covers up the notes lower in the instrument and can only be regarded as perhaps something as a miscalculation on the part of the composer or a registration which might have taken to a slight tweak.
I confess myself to being somewhat emotionally attached to the fourth movement of this symphony, and the effect of the slowly moving melody with its swiftly undulating accompaniment – turned into almost whispering figurations in this case – is a sheer joy. After this, the opening of the fifth movement is akin to unlocking the door to Nirvana, Nolan’s tempo again closer to 53 rather than the marked 63 but perfectly in proportion with the rest of his spacious and warmly all-embracing performance of the rest of the work. I’d never made quite the connection to tonality with this piece and its influence on musicians such as Messiaen, but the whiteness of the C major chord within the first minute of the finale is truly striking in this performance. This is the launch-pad for some truly searching tonal twists and turns, but after such a shot of Tequila we’re ready to take on remoteness of any kind, trusting our guides to thrill us and deliver us safely back to, where? – to A major? – whoooeeee! Ates Orga’s booklet notes describe this and the ride throughout the entire work as being “at times near-Sibelian in anticipation” and I couldn’t agree more.
Talking of Messiaen, isolate the first two bars of the Eighth Symphony and you are there and nowhere else. Contemporary commentator John R. Near raved about this work’s “Mahlerian scope”, considering it “the ultimate achievement in the art of organ composition.” As with the previous symphony, the opening movement lays out a store of remarkable effects, in this case growing out of and at times appearing to retreat into themes of relative naivety. At over ten minutes this is one of the most overtly ‘symphonic’ of these movements, and the capabilities of the instrument and performer are indeed examined to the full. The second movement’s relaxed and disarming lyricism recalls Mendelssohn, the mildly contrasting tonal atmosphere of the central section something from which we are safely delivered by a celestially elongated cadence.
You will no doubt have heard the Allegro third movement a fair bit quicker on other recordings as compared to here, and Nolan hovers more around 104 in comparison to a metronome mark of 132. This offers a good deal more detail and reveals complexities hidden in some other more precipitous performances. Nolan finds excitement in the building of tensions as the themes develop and textures expand, but we don’t really reach any kind of fever pitch or ‘Hexentanz’ as suggested in the booklet. This is the only place in the entire cycle so far where Nolan’s broader tempo has arguably gone too far.
My score has a Prélude as a fourth movement which seems to have been ditched in the 1901 revision and is ignored by performers in general. With the truly monumental Variations in fourth place the main weight of the second half of the symphony is contrapuntal, the passacaglia a vast movement with “a magnificence and strength to equal the mightiest in Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner.” The scale and ambition of this movement, superbly paced by Nolan, demands a cooling-off period which arrives in the form of a gentle Adagio, further demonstrating the softer registers of the organ and Nolan’s expressive phrasing. The Finale is another of Widor’s movements which can appear overbearing and overly grandiose. Joseph Nolan keeps the rhythms tight and gives the notes enough articulation to allow for space and lightness to shine through. There is a funny moment at 2:11 where a B flat is allowed to clash against an A perhaps a little too heavily. With the repetition two bars later it sticks out less, but the B flat is an ornamental grace note and shouldn’t appear on top of the A like a stacked pancake. Leaving this picky comment aside the movement fully lives up to its description by Riemenschneider as a thing of “almost barbaric splendour and exuberance”.
I’ve left out comparisons with other recordings, but comments made in the other reviews apply here. Joseph Nolan’s cycle of Widor’s Organ Symphonies is a potent force in terms of both performance and recording and to my mind sweeps aside the competition with consummate ease.
Widor’s Seventh and Eighth Organ Symphonies are relatively neglected works, certainly by comparison with their two predecessors, Nos. 5 and 6, with which they were published as his Op. 42. It isn’t difficult to see why. The two earlier symphonies present a popular front, being readily accessible works made up of memorably contrasted movements with strong themes. But in Nos. 7 and 8 Widor was aiming at something quite different. His developing view of the organ as a transcendent instrument of all-embracing, near infinite expression, capable on its own of voicing just about everything that music could contain, gave rise to lofty and less immediately approachable ideals, explored in both these two numbered symphonies as well as the later ‘Romane’ and ‘Gothique’. Whether or not you buy into Widor’s philosophy, these symphonies are not for the faint-hearted. They are huge undertaking for the player and indeed for the listener too – symphonies more respected than admired, I suspect – and their rewards are hard-won.
Joseph Nolan tackles each of these sprawling behemoths with an appetite that appears indefatigable. Even with an instrument as versatile and varied as an organ, it’s difficult to sustain interest and a sense of the works’ entirety when start and finish are some 50 minutes apart, and even recurring melodic strands that might help bind the music together can seem counter-productive over such a great span. Widor doesn’t care to say in 100 bars what he might just as well say in 200, hence such movement as the immense set of variations at the heart of No. 8, almost a quarter of an hour long, on a frankly ponderous theme, which nevertheless is for some the greatest of his symphonic movements. However, listen hard enough and the merits of the music begin to show themselves. There are some unavoidably dense textures, but Nolan brings out the contrast between these and the many sections of often quite light, (semi-)contrapuntal writing with an instinctive knack that shouldn’t be underestimated. Underlying delicate, intertwining, ornamental passagework there are often hidden dangers, such as double pedalling, that laudably remain almost hidden from view.
The Cavaillé-Coll organ at La Madeleine in Paris has excellent credentials for the job and ha acquitted itself wonderfully throughout Nolan’s Widor series. Reviews of earlier volumes in these pages report both problems with the clarity of the, sound, owing to the way in which the building’s reverberation has been captured, and, alternatively, ‘pure ‘sonic joy’ ( November 2012 and May and November 2013). I don’t think either judgement would be entirely fair to describe this volume. The organ is clear, responsive and beautifully flavoured, and no enthusiast of organ recordings is likely to complain that the acoustics get in the way. The sound is fine, though there are times when the balance doesn’t seem right, and this is probably more the character of the instrument than the recording. For instance, the sustained trumpet notes in the third movement of No. 7 are marked piano but easily overpower the weaker flute that struggles to be heard above. However, the reedy final chords of the same movement have real Gallic pungency, with imperfect tuning just heightening the effect. It’s a shame that, in revising the symphonies, Widor edited out some of the more unusual registration, as vast expanses of of gambas, flutes and principlas benefit from greater tonal contrast from time to time. Particularly regrettable is his expunging of the exotic Voix Humaine in favour of pretty though fairly ordinary flutes in what would otherwise be a more opulently distinctive chorale in tile fifth movement of No. 7.
The booklet note, though providing an adequate background, could, I think, do more to encourage appreciation of these mammoth works. To iIlustrate Widor’s elaborate and ‘finely wrought’ movement forms with tedious shopping lists of keys, tempos, thematic letters and other such structural scaffolding will do little to tempt the curious or to convince the sceptical that the music is anything other than long-winded and impenetrable. However, those who have been following the series will know by now what to expect and need have no reservations about adding Volume 4 to their collection, and both Nolan and Signum can only be commended for their continued commitment.