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Hyperion Records

CDA67817 - Widor: Piano Concertos & Fantaisie
CDA67817

Recording details: July 2010
BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Phil Rowlands
Release date: November 2011
DISCID: 6710C807
Total duration: 71 minutes 36 seconds

'All three works are far more than vapid virtuoso showpieces, though all contain their share of thundering octaves and brilliant virtuoso display … Hyperion opts for a more transparent sound picture and slightly clearer woodwind and brass details, matched by Becker's lighter, sparkling touch; they have the better booklet (Nigel Simeone)—and, of course, if you are collecting their Romantic Piano Concerto series it will be de facto the first choice' (Gramophone)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Piano Concertos & Fantaisie
Allegro con fuoco  [11'26]
Allegro  [9'13]
Andante  [5'25]
Tempo deciso  [7'17]

Charles-Marie Widor was born in Lyon to a family of organ builders and consequently became an organist of great skill and an assistant to Camille Saint-Saëns at La Madeleine in Paris at the age of twenty-four.

Today, Widor’s compositions for organ have a prominent position in the instrument’s core repertoire, but it is often forgotten that the composer wrote many other significant works, notably his two piano concertos. Surprisingly, these are the first recordings of the concertos and are a much-awaited addition to the numerous world premiere recordings featured in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series, now reaching its 55th volume and still unearthing little-known works to consistently dazzling effect.

Following the success of his renditions of the Draeseke and Jadassohn concertos, pianist Markus Becker makes a welcome return to the series. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the remarkable Thierry Fischer more than do justice to Widor’s imaginative orchestrations.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The case of Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937) is a curious one. The familiar image is of the composer-organist in old age at the console of Saint-Sulpice where he had served as titulaire for over six decades. As for Widor’s music, he shares with Henry Litolff the odd distinction of being famous for a single movement. Litolff is remembered for the Scherzo from his Concerto symphonique No 4, Widor for the Toccata from his fifth Organ Symphony. This ranks high among the most famous of all organ pieces, but the rest of Widor’s output—including orchestral and chamber music, stage works and songs—has been neglected. As for his private life, he remained a raffish bachelor with a well-honed eye for attractive women until—at the age of seventy-six—he married Mathilde de Montesquiou-Fézensac, forty years his junior.

Born in Lyon on 21 February 1844, Widor’s musical studies followed an unorthodox route. Rather than going to the Paris Conservatoire, he was encouraged by the organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (a family friend) to study privately in Brussels with Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens (whose French pupils already included Alexandre Guilmant) and with the venerable François-Joseph Fétis. Back in Paris, Cavaillé-Coll promoted his protégé, introducing him to Liszt, Rossini and Saint-Saëns. Widor’s playing as a young man was of such quality that he was invited to participate in the prestigious inaugurations of the organs at Notre-Dame and La Trinité, and in 1869 he became Saint-Saëns’s assistant at the Madeleine. In 1870, supported by recommendations from Gounod and Cavaillé-Coll, he was appointed Lefébure-Wély’s successor as titulaire of Saint-Sulpice, the post he was to hold for the next sixty-four years, and his earliest assistants included Fauré and Messager. In ‘Organ Loft Whisperings’ published in the Musical Courier in 1893, Fanny Edgar Thomas gave a description of Widor:

His coloring is brown. It is a long face, the features regularly divided, even with an unusually high brow, and a strong, straight nose. The head is pleasingly shaped; the hair upon it slight and fine and brown … The eyes are large, round, brown, clear and inquiring, full of a changing expression that is very interesting to watch. The slender fingers have that slight turn upward at the point indicating the musician, and he has a very slight lisp.

Writing in 1894, Hugues Imbert recognized the importance of his friend’s organ music, but this was not what had first brought Widor’s name to wider notice: ‘His organ works, novel in terms of form, have been much remarked upon by connoisseurs. The two productions that made him known to the general public were the ballet La korrigane performed at the Opéra in December 1881 and Jeanne d’Arc, a grande pantomime musicale given at the Hippodrome in June 1890.’

In his memoirs, the Count de Maugny recalled Widor as a lively participant at the soirées held by the Countess de Beaumont, describing him as ‘a delightful companion, launching from time to time into a tongue-in-cheek epigram … always willing to lend his superb talent to the proceedings’. Widor was also a regular at the Friday evening salons held by Marie Trélat (1837–1914) at her house in the rue de Seine. At the age of twenty she had married Napoleon III’s surgeon and she was an excellent amateur singer whose mother had studied with Rossini. She was the dedicatee of songs by Massenet, Franck and Bizet, as well as Widor’s Six mélodies Op 14; Fauré’s Lydia, one of the masterpieces of French song, is dedicated to her, and Fauré later described this remarkable woman as ‘a rare musician’. Jean-Michel Nectoux has listed some of those who were to be found chez Trélat: Charles de Bériot, Reyer, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Gounod and Duparc would meet there alongside Renan, Sully Prudhomme, Hérédia and the academic painters Henner, Bonnat and Carolus-Duran. Widor was also one of this group, and dozens of his letters to Trélat survive (in the Sibley Music Library, Rochester, and in the Bibliothèque nationale de France). In 1888 Tchaikovsky came to Paris, and wrote home that he had been given ‘a huge lunch’ by Widor. But an entry in Tchaikovsky’s diary suggests that there was considerably more to Widor’s relationship with Marie Trélat. On 3 March Tchaikovsky noted: ‘Widor at Saint-Sulpice. The Mass. He is an excellent organist. Madame Trélat is his mistress.’

Widor’s Piano Concerto No 1 in F minor, Op 39 was completed in 1876, making it contemporary with works like Saint-Saëns’s Concerto No 4 (1875), the original version of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No 1 (1875) and Dvorák’s Piano Concerto (1876). The first performance was given at the Concerts du Châtelet on 19 November 1876, announced in Le Ménestrel with the whole programme:

1 Symphony in C minor [No 5] by Beethoven
2 Overture from Lalla Roukh by Félicien David
3 Kinderszenen by Schumann orchestrated by M. Benjamin Godard
4 Concerto for piano and orchestra by Ch. M. Widor (first performance), played by L. Diémer
5 Minuet by Boccherini
6 Wedding March by Mendelssohn
The orchestra conducted by M. Colonne

Le Ménestrel published an enthusiastic review by Auguste Morel. After praising Godard’s string-orchestra arrangement of seven pieces from Kinderszenen, Morel turned to Widor:

The concerto for piano and orchestra by M. Widor is a very remarkable work. Perhaps the young and already wise organist of Saint-Sulpice has yielded a little to the inclination of the most recent school of composers to favour form over substance, but there are some beautiful harmonic effects and interesting development of ideas. The finale is the best of the three movements, I think—despite all the success of the Andante—based on a motif that is very lively and forthright with rather the appeal of a scherzo. Thanks to his playing, so precise and so firm, M. Diémer … made the most persuasive case for the concerto.

Further support came from an unlikely quarter: the waspish Victorin de Joncières earned notoriety for his merciless lambasting of fellow-composers (The New Grove describes him as ‘immensely conceited, and his highly sarcastic attacks [were] indiscriminate’), but he clearly took to Widor, writing in La Liberté:

His concerto for piano is an absolutely remarkable work, in terms of both its conception and its implementation. The Andante struck us above all: it is a movement of the first order, of highly elevated thought and a style full of nobility. The orchestration is colourful, lively, bold, original. One could reproach M. Widor for too often recalling Schumann. M. Diémer played the solo part with mastery.

The Allegro con fuoco opens with sonorous piano chords supported by the orchestra, followed by a more reflective accompanied cadenza. After another forceful orchestral intervention a Schumannesque second idea is introduced and developed. A tranquil, freer recollection of the opening by the soloist leads back to a full-throated tutti in which both the principal ideas are recalled and developed. The rest of the movement derives all its material from further exploration of these ideas, in a nicely balanced dialogue between soloist and orchestra that sometimes has the pianist taking a subordinate role to instrumental lines that reveal Widor’s gift for orchestration. At the start of the Andante religioso a rather austere theme is announced by the woodwind, contrasting with a simple but noble series of piano chords that contain the germ of a second theme. After a passage in which the piano develops the initial orchestral idea, the chords return, now arpeggiated and marked quasi arpa. If the ghosts of Schumann and Liszt seem to hover over some of what follows, Widor’s music remains individual and the movement draws to a beautiful close with a serene recollection of the chordal theme. The scherzo-like finale is dominated by the genial, slightly galumphing theme heard at the start, with echoes of Saint-Saëns. Near the end of the movement, a cadenza makes fleeting reference to music heard earlier, and in the subsequent coda Widor turns finally towards F major for the concerto’s jubilant conclusion.

The pianist Isidore Philipp (1863–1958) wrote about his discovery of this concerto in his early twenties:

In 1886, I happened to have an opportunity to see a piano concerto by Charles-Marie Widor. The work pleased me tremendously—it was musical and brilliant, and I set myself to studying it with the idea of suggesting its performance to one of the orchestra conductors in Paris or in the provinces. I was most anxious to consult the composer, whom I knew to be very busy with his various duties—with his directing the choral society La Concordia and with his playing regularly the most important organ in Paris, that of Saint-Sulpice—and of whom rumour said that only handsome and aristocratic ladies could arouse his interest, that he was something of a snob, and that on Sundays the console of his organ was surrounded by a bevy of countesses and marquises. I confided in Saint-Saëns, my mentor, who immediately said to me: ‘That is just talk, Widor is charming; a little distant, it is true, but I am sure that he will receive you with pleasure. Write to him and do not act like a child. You have no need of a letter of recommendation.’
I sent him a few lines and promptly received an answer granting me an appointment. Widor then lived in back of Saint-Sulpice, at 8 rue Garancière, one of the oldest streets in Paris. In this magnificent palace, which had belonged to Sophie Arnould—the singer famous for her beauty, the interpreter of Gluck and Rameau … he occupied a modest little apartment on the fifth floor and, on the ground floor, a large room which he called his ‘den’ and in which he had a grand piano and an Erard pédalier, a work table, and three chairs. On the wall there were hung a number of invitations from the ‘great names’ of France. Widor received me cordially, listened to me, seemed delighted that I wished to play his work, and said to me with a touch of melancholy: ‘The pianists hardly spoil me with too much attention.’ He invited me to come back, and from that occasion dated a friendship destined to last without a break until his death. How easy and happy this first meeting had been for me!

Clearly it had been a happy encounter for Widor too, since his next concertante work for piano—the Fantaisie in A flat major, Op 62—was dedicated to Philipp. The genre of the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra would soon become something of a French speciality: Debussy’s Fantaisie was written in 1889–90, Saint-Saëns’s Africa (subtitled Fantaisie) dates from 1891, and later examples were composed by Benjamin Godard (Fantaisie persane, 1894), Max d’Ollone (1897), Marcel Dupré (1908) and Fauré (1919). Widor’s Fantaisie was among the first of these, and a prominent dedication appears on the title page of the published score: ‘A Monsieur I. Philipp’. The dedicatee became an enthusiastic apostle for the work, describing it as ‘serene and noble’ as well as showing his ‘unfailing good taste’. Philipp played the Fantaisie for the first time at the Concerts Colonne on 23 February 1889, with Widor conducting. They took it to London the following year for a concert of the Philharmonic Society on 13 March 1890 when, according to Philipp himself, it was ‘particularly well received’. A review appeared in The Times on 14 March, praising Philipp’s performance in particular:

[The Fantaisie] was conducted by the composer, the solo part being exquisitely played by a French pianist, M. Philipp, whose singularly beautiful touch and perfect technical equipment aroused unqualified admiration. The work is something more than merely a brilliant and effective piece, since, like all M. Widor’s compositions, it has earnestness of purpose, great originality and no small amount of melodic beauty. Nor is all, or even the greater part of, the musical interest given to the solo part.

Though Widor was careful to keep his distance from the bickerings of César Franck’s supporters and detractors, there is a strong Franckiste strain in this work. The most memorable feature of the Fantaisie is the melody first heard pianissimo on strings at the opening, coloured by arpeggiated piano chords. This theme has both the harmonic mobility and the melodic obstinacy of Franck, sliding effortlessly (and sometimes surprisingly) from one key to another but often centred on notes that are repeated. A more rhythmically animated second idea also enjoys its fair share of imaginative transformation as the work progresses, but Widor’s treatment of the initial motto theme finds him at his most consistently inventive, presenting it towards the close with almost Lisztian ingenuity: as a tender oboe melody over harp-like piano figurations, triumphant and aspirational (complete with cymbal crashes), and recalled in tranquillity by the piano, before the dash to the close.

Widor’s Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 77 was composed in 1905 and is dedicated to Francis Planté. He had performed Widor’s Fantaisie with the composer at a concert in Bordeaux in which Planté and Widor also appeared as soloists in a Bach concerto. Planté, however, did not give the premiere of the Concerto Widor dedicated to him: once again, that honour fell to Isidore Philipp, at the Concerts Colonne on 26 February 1905. Writing about it in Le Ménestrel a week later, Jules Jemain was full of admiration:

With a nice swagger, well suited to reassure any pianist who has been terrorized by tumultuous incidents, M. Charles-Marie Widor gave the premiere of his recently composed Concerto for piano and orchestra which is certainly among the best modern productions. The work is complex … the orchestra, very elaborate, often takes a prominent role, and the piano is a part of this ensemble without losing its distinct personality as a solo instrument. What emerges from this concerto is an impression of remarkable passion, grandeur, and richness. The first well-developed movement is in C minor, ardent and tumultuous in expression. It presents the two main themes on which the whole work will be built. The first of these is very characteristic with its falling minor third—C, B flat, G—and the author draws on this with valuable results later on. A relatively short Andante begins with an expressive phrase, continues with a sort of cadenza leading to a muted violin solo of the happiest effect, accompanied by arabesques on the piano, and linking to the finale, lively and colourful, rich in ingenuity in which an extended progression leads to the return of the main theme. Performed by M. Isidore Philipp with a very secure talent, impeccable technique and gradations of nuances most skilfully deployed, M. Widor’s concerto won all the votes, and author and interpreter were rightly and lengthily acclaimed.

Nigel Simeone © 2011


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