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Hyperion Records

CDA67244 - French Cello Music

Recording details: October 2000
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Release date: June 2003
Total duration: 70 minutes 51 seconds

'This is a first-rate disc of unfamiliar repertoire, beautifully played and recorded. Unhesitatingly recommended' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is a fascinating anthology of French music for cello and piano. The performance by Mats Lidström and Bengt Forsberg is extremely impressive. Recommended to anyone with a taste for the byways of French music' (International Record Review)

'This is sumptuous, gorgeous, richly replete music, sumptuously played' (Fanfare, USA)

'Hyperion’s vivid sound adds to the appeal of a highly recommendable disc' (

French Cello Music
Sans lenteur  [10'17]
Sans faiblir  [2'39]
Funèbre  [9'55]
Rondement  [6'49]
Allegro moderato  [10'05]
Andante con moto  [9'28]
Allegro vivace  [10'20]

Mats Lidström opens his notes for this exciting and varied new release with these emphatic words: “Let it be known that cellists’ repertoire is unlimited”! In that spirit this outstanding duo offer us a feast of fine fare from the neglected French repertoire. This includes the remainder of the Breton song arrangements by Koechlin which where unknown to the players when they recorded the first set (CDA66979) and have here been recorded for the first time from the manuscript in the composer’s family’s collection.

As for Widor, he has come down in history first and foremost as a compser of colossal organ symphonies but this is not the whole story of the hearty and colourful character, as is evident in his lyrical and strongly emotive cello sonata. Magnard, by contrast, had a greater wish for formal nicety in his writing which, as our players confess, meant that they were taken by surprise by their moist eyes at the close of the funeral march movement of this sonata.

All in all an issue of surprises and power, charm and delight, from players whose recordings for Hyperion pour light upon lurking treasures.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Debussy and Ravel are the four most famous French composers of their time. They form an impressive group, and sometimes it seems unnecessary to look beyond it. But they were part of a much larger musical scene which included several other major composers, three of whom are represented on this disc.

Lucien Denis Gabriel Albéric Magnard was born on 9 June 1865. Having lost his mother at the age of four, he was brought up by his father, who was chief editor of the newspaper Le Figaro. He was rich, well-read and had a strong love for painting. With this came a guilt of being privileged, which made him into a musical puritan. He intensely disliked self-advertisement and the assumption that he would use his father’s name to launch his career as ‘le fils du Figaro’. He was known to be proud, unsociable and sardonic, but his friends who knew of his warmth and wit ascribed this to his partial deafness, of which he experienced the first symptoms in the 1890s. Thus he was unable to reach out and create a listening tradition for his music. Today his output remains a treasure for the initiated.

Part of his general education took place in Ramsgate, England. He later studied law, gaining his degree in 1887, but a visit to Bayreuth in June 1886 for a performance of Tristan und Isolde made him change course. He enrolled at the Paris Conservatory under Dubois and Massenet, winning the Premier Prix in harmony two years later in 1888. At the conservatory he made a lifelong friend in Guy Ropartz, who introduced him to Franck and Chausson. Ropartz would later prove to be Magnard’s greatest supporter when, as director of the conservatory in Nancy, he often programmed his music.

In 1888 Magnard switched camps by taking private theory lessons from Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931), whose Schola Cantorum represented the very opposite of the Paris Conservatoire. D’Indy was a rather opinionated man who opposed anything that moved away from the old ideals. By 1905 the Schola had developed under d’Indy into a new outpost of orthodoxy while the radicals of music were to be found among the students of the Conservatoire under Fauré and Widor. Saint-Saëns, who may not have been in search of anything radical, but who nevertheless strongly opposed d’Indy, attacked him with an article in 1914 called Les idées de M. d’Indy. Widor admired his ways of teaching and ability for organisation, but would say ‘pity such a man is not musical!’.

The idealism of the Schola suited Magnard, who preferred clarity of line and form to Impressionism. The music critic and winner of the Prix de Rome in 1890, Gaston Carraud (also the dedicatee of Magnard’s Cello Sonata), wrote in his biography:

Magnard’s tendency was to intensify the dramatic element in his instrumental music, and to introduce into dramatic music the logic and restraint of pure symphonic music. His later works illustrate his progress in that two-fold process … the lyric drama Bérénice (1905-09) is an instant of pure, severe classicism, whereas in the Cello Sonata and the Fourth Symphony, the dramatic character is more intense than ever.

In 1904 Magnard left Paris for his estate Manoir des Fontaines in Baron. Here he wrote much of his exquisite chamber music. The Cello Sonata in A major Op 20, from 1910/11, which never became as popular as the violin sonata he wrote for Eugène Ysaÿe in 1902, was premiered at Salle Pleyel in Paris on 11 February 1911 by Ferdinand Pollain and Blanche Selva. In a 1930 interview Marcel Labey said about the sonata ‘... nothing matters to him but sincerity of thought and harmonious balance of form. Thus his music, being of no period, will not grow old.’ A review in Le Monde described the sonata as containing ‘some of the most beautiful pages of post-Berlioz romanticism’. The lyrical first movement contains a section marked ‘alla zingarese’ in the cello part and ‘alla d’Indy’ in the piano part, which serves as the basis for a fugue later in the movement, relating to the fugue in the last movement. A passionate scherzo, with a hint of folkiness, leads straight into the Funèbre, which like the last movement is a rondo in five sections. Magnard devoted his attention to musical architecture and may not have strived for poetic expression in his music, nor had he interest in the grace or charm of Chabrier, Ravel or Saint-Saëns, but this cello sonata offers moments of the finest poetry.

At the outbreak of the Great War, Magnard sent his wife and daughters to safety while he stayed behind to guard the estate. On 3 September two German soldiers approached with the warning to evacuate. Magnard’s answer was a single shot that killed one of the soldiers. The Germans retaliated by setting fire to his house, and Magnard perished in the flames. Destroyed in the fire were the only two existing copies of the opera Yolande, two acts in full score of the opera Guercœur and his new cycle of twelve songs Poèmes en Musique. He was 49 years old.

Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) was, like Magnard, no careerist. His music is of the highest order: imaginative and innovative, but making no claim to popular qualities. It is lyrical, sometimes fragile in its refined simplicity, and often free in rhythm. It is not as immediately accessible as the music of Ravel (who, like Koechlin, studied with Fauré), or a text by Maupassant, or a painting by Monet; but the closer one listens, the more apparent become the distinctive colours of Koechlin’s palette.

At the time of recording the first two books of the Chansons Bretonnes (Hyperion CDA66979), Bengt and I were unaware of the existence of another nine pieces. When visiting the composer’s son, Yves Koechlin, in Paris, he presented a copy of the manuscript which was later used for this recording. The publisher Senart has published the first twelve Chansons, and we may now hope that they follow suit and complete the set.

The fact that not much is written about Charles-Marie-Jean-Albert Widor is most peculiar. Once one is familiar with his music and his eventful life, the picture is clear: he is a major figure and a powerful force in French music. Yet his music is rarely heard, except in church, where the Toccata from his Organ Symphony No 5 never ceases to challenge organists. His output may not be as consistent as that of Saint-Saëns or his friend and main rival Fauré, but nevertheless there is much beauty to remember him by.

Charles-Marie Widor was born in Lyon on 21 Febraury 1844, ‘à deux heur du soir’ (sic) as stated on his birth certificate. His father, just as his grandfather, was an organist and organ builder which put the family in connection with Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899). This greatest of all French organ builders made it possible for Charles-Marie to study with the leading organist Nicolas Lemmens from Waterloo.

In 1869 Widor was appointed to the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. The title ‘acting organist’ was never altered and a contract never prepared, so Widor remained acting organist for 64 years. The Franco-Prussian War ended with the siege of Paris from September 1870 to January 1871. Widor, like Saint-Saens, became a soldier. At Saint-Denis, north of Paris, where he was stationed, there were heavy casualties, but every Sunday he was allowed to return, in uniform, to play at Saint-Sulpice.

Later in 1871 Fauré was appointed ‘Petit Organiste’ at Saint-Sulpice. Widor and Fauré used to amuse themselves by improvising together on the two organs in the church, without the congregation noticing. Fauré left in 1874 to become Saint-Saëns’ assistant at La Madeleine, but the improvisation ‘contest’ continued with his successor, André Messager.

Widor did not belong to any group or school. Nor did he have anything to do with the foundation of the Société Nationale in 1871 (created by Saint-Saëns and others to promote French instrumental music). Nor did he conform to the popular image of a church organist. César Franck looked shabby in his black suit, but Widor, a cosmopolitain, choose a blue suit with a spotted cravatte and a soft hat. Fascinated by the beau monde and the wealth and power that he encountered in the salons, he was, like his future friend Marcel Proust, an observer of life. He had a great appetite, described by friends as enormous. When Tchaikovsky visited Paris in 1888 he wrote to his brother Modest, ‘Widor gave me a huge meal!’. His favourite restaurant for several years was the ‘Foyot’ on rue Tournon. Isidore Philipp, the Hungarian pianist, writes about the ‘rare hours’ when one might find at Widor’s table Dumas, Maupassant, Busoni, Godowsky or Albert Schweitzer.

Schweitzer, with whom Widor founded the Paris Bach Society in 1905, felt while standing next to Widor during a performance of the Symphony Romane in Saint-Sulpice, that ‘the French art of organ playing had entered sacred art, and had experienced the death and the resurrection that every art of organ playing must experience when it wishes to create something new’. For Widor, organ playing was ‘the manifestation of a will with the vision of eternity’. His understanding of the instrumental colours of the orchestra enabled him to extend the organ’s range of stops, although he did not approve of frequent changes of registration – “no magic lanterns, if you please!” he used to tell his students – and made manual changes according to tone colour. While he prepared his registration he would chat and joke with his friends, but when he played, Louis Vierne recalled ‘his concentration was total, immobile in the centre of the stool, his body lightly leaning forward. When he pulled the stops, his movements were mathematically ordered as to cause the minimum loss of time. His hands were like sculpture, admirably cared for, and no fruitless gesture ever disturbed the visual harmony constantly in accord with the sonorous harmony’.

After Franck’s death in 1890 Widor succeeded him as organ professor at the Conservatory. His knowledge came as a bombshell to many of his students. Marcel Dupré remembered him ‘displaying a great breadth of mind in attempting to penetrate the temperament of each student and guide it in its own path. Always straightforward and kind towards his students, he had, beneath a certain outward coldness, a warmth of heart which revealed a deep sensitivity’. His class included Charles Tournemire, Henri Busser, Louis Vierne (who wrote a beautiful cello sonata in B minor for Casals in 1910), Albert Schweitzer and Marcel Dupré. (Dupré joined Widor’s composition class at the Conservatory in 1908; among his compositions is a sonata for cello and organ.)

When Théodore Dubois became director of the Conservatory in 1896, Widor succeeded him as professor of composition. Professor Massenet rejected a plea to introduce instrumental composition at the conservatory – ‘no musician of standing would condescend to become a mere teacher of symphony’ - but Widor’s attitude was different. Here he taught Milhaud, Honegger and Nadia Boulanger. Edgar Varèse – who left the Schola Cantorum for Widor in 1906 and moved to New York in the 1920s where he represented a style of composition very different to his teacher – felt Widor was ‘human, unpretentious and open-minded, and had a sense of humour’. To him Widor represented the élite of France together with Debussy and Roussel, while d’Indy, Saint-Saëns and Fauré ‘stayed the imagination and stemmed the flow of life’.

Widor received the Légion d’Honneur in 1892, and was made member of the Academies in Berlin (1906), Brussels (1907) and Stockholm (1909). He was a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts from 1910, and elected Permanent Secretary in 1914. Pierné said ‘let a painter or a sculpture or an engraver ask him for any information ... Widor will have the answer. What a mine of information!’. Elgar was made ‘Corresponding Member’ of the Académie in March 1920, an honour which gave Lady Elgar enormous pleasure. At her death a month later, his note of admission, signed by Widor, was placed in her coffin before burial.

With the outbreak of the Great War the government left for Bordeaux, and it became Widor’s responsibility to supervise the removal of 766 of the finest art treasures to a safer location in Toulouse – ‘I tremble for the Louvre’ he wrote. Parisians expected a second German invasion within months, but the battle of Marne changed all that: four years of trench warfare ensued. The end of the war meant the beginning of Widor’s cultural missions. He was sent to Spain by the government to promote culture between the two nations, a mission resulting in the building of his beloved centre Casa Velasquez (which was bombed to bits during the Spanish Civil War sixteen years later). As King Alfonso XIII of Spain made the dream come true, so did Baron Edmund de Rothschild when Widor turned to London to establish the Maison à Londres at Queen’s Gate, near the Royal Albert Hall. Another endeavour was the creation of the Franco-American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, where Nadia Boulanger was to teach generations of American composers, including Leonard Bernstein, Roger Sessions, David Diamond and Aaron Copland, who dismissed Widor as an ‘ancient organist and composer’.

This ‘ancient’ composer, who died at the age of 93 in 1937 (the year of the deaths of Vierne, Roussel, Pierné and Ravel) composed two symphonies for orchestra, ten for organ, two for organ and orchestra, concertos for piano, violin, cello and harp, ballets (including La Korrigane and Jeanne d’Arc), three operas (the last one, Nerto, in 1924), solo songs and a great amount of piano and chamber music. His last composition, Trois Nouvelles Pièces Op 87 for organ, was written in 1934.

The Cello Sonata in A major Op 80, from 1907, is a grand work in three movements, with a gorgeous opening which heralds a sonata brimming with ideas. A review in Le Ménestrel which appeared shortly after the premiere mentions the lovely fact that the themes are more purely melodic and consequently less suitable for development than those in the violin sonata, but are more numerous. Comparing the cello part to other sonatas of the period, one feels as a cellist that Widor was not concerned with the technical possibilities or difficulties: with, for example, its employment of huge intervals, the cello part matches that of the piano for virtuosity. The Sonata was premiered by Jules Loeb and the composer on 14 March 1907 at the salon of Madame Max, who also offered the Violin Sonata Op 79 on the same programme.

‘A true artist is hardly made for marriage’, Widor used to say. Behind the organ he kept a bust of Bach, but on the organ stool he would have Countess Emmanuela Potocka turning the pages for him. This led the Archbishop of Paris to forbid ladies to go up to the organ loft, and the newspapers to report Widor’s dismissal. The Curé, however, felt a warning was sufficient. Widor’s pupil Edgar Varèse liked to recall when he arrived at his house for his lesson: Widor, half dressed, excused himself, ‘Pardon,Verèse, I can’t receive you, I have company’. He went to Bayreuth in 1876 to hear the Ring. But unlike Guillaume Lekeu, who fainted at the opening chord of Die Meistersinger, Widor spent the performances admiring the bare shoulders of the wife of the Prussian Ambassador to Russia. For most of his life he remained a bachelor, but at the age of 76 he got married to the much younger Mathilde who reputedly looked like Queen Alexandra of England. Marcel Proust had been her first choice, but failing him she went for her second choice, fulfilling Widor’s maxim that ‘to live well and long, it is enough to work hard, to eat and drink well, and not to turn your head away from a pretty face.’

Mats Lidström © 2003

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