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Hyperion Records

CDA66181 - Widor: Symphony No 5
CDA66181

Recording details: July 1985
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: May 1987
Total duration: 46 minutes 30 seconds

'Very thrilling. An irresistible sound' (BBC Record Review)

Symphony No 5
Allegro vivace  [10'01]
Adagio  [5'52]
Toccata: Allegro  [5'26]
Mystique  [4'35]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Charles-Marie Widor’s lifetime (1844–1937) spans the renaissance of French organ music under such men as Tournemire, Guilmant, Vierne and Dupré and on to Langlais and Messiaen. Frenchmen were among the first to apply the advances in keyboard techniques pioneered by Liszt to the organ; there is also no doubt that the organs of Cavaillé-Coll, with their sonorous choruses and orchestral colours, opened up a new world of organ sound at a time when there were organists with orchestral knowledge such as Franck and Widor to take advantage of it. Widor himself, the author of a treatise on orchestration and Professor of Composition (and of Organ) at the Paris Conservatoire, was organist at Saint-Sulpice for over sixty years; he took up the post in 1869, seven years after the inauguration of the new Cavaillé-Coll instrument there. It cannot be coincidence that almost his complete organ output was in the form of ‘symphonies’: though first and foremost an organist, the general absence of contrapuntal writing and the detailed instructions on registration suggest that he approached the different colours of the organ as he would have done an orchestra.

There remains the question for what kind of occasion his ten symphonies were intended. It has been suggested that they are merely suites, collections of miniatures, something very much in the French tradition since Couperin and Rameau. However, the movements do not usually have titles in the manner of many of Vierne’s pieces (Vierne was Widor’s pupil, and assistant at Saint-Sulpice for a time), and there is no indication that any of these pieces were intended for use separately in a religious context. Nor is there anything miniature about the symphonic movements recorded here. Furthermore, the keys of the five movements of the Symphony No 5 (F minor, F minor, A flat, C, F) suggest an overall scheme. So although Widor himself and many others since have played the concluding Toccata separately, it looks as if the Symphony was intended to be performed complete as a recital work. But the real test is to listen to the whole Symphony, and judge for oneself.

The work opens with a lively Allegro movement, the main theme of which appears at the start in detached chords played softly on the swell organ. Three variations on the theme lead to a central section on great diapasons. Development of the main musical idea follows, culminating in a thrilling restatement on full organ. The second movement is best described as an intermezzo. The main theme is directed to be played on the oboe (hautbois), with a gentle accompaniment in semiquavers marked staccato; after a minute or two the flute joins in. After a slow-moving central section with strings and celeste predominating, the opening tune reappears, followed by a short coda. A pedal solo opens the Andantino which follows, and the pedals provide much of the rhythmic impulse thereafter, keeping up a restless ostinato figure. However this has disappeared by the end of the movement, which ends calmly. The fourth movement is surely intended to set off the final Toccata – a static Adagio in five (and even six) voices, with a tune hinting at the Toccata’s theme played on the pedals by a flute at four-foot pitch. It winds its way pensively through various keys until it returns to the home key of C.

There is no need to describe the Toccata, a case of very simple material made into a brilliantly effective piece by purely musical means. The staccato semiquavers in the right hand, the tune in long notes in the pedals, set off by the rhythmic chords in the left hand – each contributes something different to the overall effect. There is no orchestral influence here; no one who did not thoroughly understand the organ’s capabilities could have written it.

If the Toccata from Symphony No 5 is Widor’s best-known composition, the ‘Pontifical March’ is undoubtedly his next. A flamboyant exploitation of the resources of a large organ in the resonant acoustic of a large building, it combines pomp, tunefulness and jaunty rhythms in equal measure. It is the fifth and last movement of the composer’s Symphony No 1, dating from the 1870s.

In less extrovert style altogether is Mystique, the second of three ‘new pieces’ written late in the composer’s life, possibly in 1934.

Hyperion Records Ltd © 1985

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