Thursday 27 February 2014

Widor Organ Symphonies volume 4

Widor Organ Symphonies vol4: Joseph Nolan: Signum Classics: SIGCD337
Widor Organ Symphonies no. 7 and 8: Joseph Nolan: The Cavaille-Coll Organ of La Madeleine, Paris
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 24 2014
Star rating: 3.5

Fine conclusion: Widor's last two organ symphonies as Joseph Nolan completes his set

This is the last in Joseph Nolan's set of the complete Organ Symphonies by Charles-Marie Widor recorded on the Cavaille-Coll Ogan of La Madeleine in Paris, issued on Signum Classics. These final two discs, volume four of the complete edition, cover Widor's final two symphonies Symphony No. 7, Op. 42 and Symphony No. 8, Op. 42. In these final two works, Widor's writing for the organ is very far from his original conception of the organ symphony as more of a suite of character pieces. The seventh and eight symphonies date from the period 1878 - 1889, the same era that would see Brahms's final symphonies, Bruckner's seventh and eighth and Saint-Saens' third. Widor's at times uncompromising works should be seen in parallel to these. (See my review of Nolan's previous volume in the set).

Symphony No. 7 is in six movements. Nolan makes the opening Moderato full of stately drama, with Widor's initial rhythmic gesture developing into complex fugal passages. Nolan's rich, bright registrations are pungently brilliant in timbre and the whole movement is a glorious prelude to the things to come. The Choral is played with quiet intensity, combined with an interestingly high brightness to the timbre which contrasts with the contemplative nature of the music. Nolan brings a lovely fluidity to the part-writing and the music flows beautifully. The third movement, Andante - Allegretto, provides us with a gentle introduction before a fascinating, meandering melody which Nolan plays on a highly distinctive solo reed. The movement is surprisingly austere in its material and Nolan's use of reeds in dialogue with the rest of the organ is put to striking use. Allegro non troppo is a remarkably evocative movement, in which a quiet lyric melody is underscored with even quieter moving arpeggio figures underneath; a remarkably technical tour-de-force from Nolan in terms of the evenness and control of his playing. The Largo is bright and stately, with quieter contemplative moments. You need to be playing this disc on a good audio system, which can do justice to the subtlety of Nolan's registrations; I found to my cost the the detail of the movement just didn't register well on my portable CD player. Widor's writing in this movement and the next is surprisingly rich in detail within the overall textures of the music. The Finale is big, bold and brassy and Nolan makes full use of an amazing array of reeds and mixtures in the registrations The long movement builds up a head of steam in a positively orgasmic manner.

The Symphony No. 8's opening Allegro risoluto is played by Nolan at quite a steady tempo but with some fast detailing with in it. Nominally in sonata form, Widor's writing is a little difficult to get hold of. The overall texture of the movement is quite dark with some rythmically interesting moments. Nolan uses registrations which make full use of the Cavaille-Coll's rich timbres, but on first hearing my first thought was of a theatre organ in the sound. This rather continues in the lyrical Moderato cantabile as Nolan surrounds Widor's lovely melody with a highly rich and complex sound world. I did feel that, to a certain extent, the registrations used almost obscure the music. Ates Orga in the CD liner notes describes the Allegro as a Hexentanz but I did not find that Nolan's performance was quite as intense as that, being rather scherzando but in a steady sort of way. The Variations is a huge movement, nearly 14 minutes long, which Nolan plays at a stately and steady Andante. Again I was struck by his rich registrations, combined with Widor's complex textures over a passacaglia-like structure. The long pedal passages in the final climaxes must sound quite stunning when heard live. The Adagio is a lovely lyrical movement, again complex in texture and with Widor bringing in some striking harmonic development. We finish with a finale which is a vibrant, but rather heavy dance.

I have to confess that I did not always find Ates Orga's liner notes helpful, they gave they feeling of being edited down from a longer, rather learned article. I do not feel they would always be as helpful as they could be, particularly for people coming to the music with a degree of unfamiliarity. Though we get details of the Cavaille-Coll organ at the Madeleine, we have no information about Nolan's at times rather colourful registrations.

Throughout all of these two works I was struck by Nolan's fine sense of control both in terms of the complex interior detail that Widor provides and of the greater architectonic issues. There are times, particularly in the Symphony No. 8 when the timbres and registrations rather get in the way of music, but as Nolan is playing on a Cavaille-Coll organ we have to assume that much of what we hear is the sound world that Widor had in mind. The set is an impressive achievement, and a notable conclusion to Nolan's complete set.

Charles-Marie Widor (1844 - 1937) - Organ Symphony No.7 in A minor, Op.42, No. 3
Charles-Marie Widor (1844 - 1937) - Organ Symphony No 8 in B major, Op.42, No. 4
 Joseph Nolan (organ)
Recorded as L'Eglise de la Madeleine, Paris, 4-10 August 2011

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