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Piano Concerto No 1 in F minor, Op 39
1876; first performed at the Concerts du Châtelet on 19 November 1876 by Louis Diémer, conducted by Colonne

'Widor: Piano Concertos & Fantaisie' (CDA67817)
Widor: Piano Concertos & Fantaisie
Movement 1: Allegro con fuoco
Movement 2: Andante religioso
Movement 3: Allegro

Piano Concerto No 1 in F minor, Op 39
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!

from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2011

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Details for CDA67817 track 2
Andante religioso
Recording date
2 July 2010
Recording venue
BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Phil Rowlands
Hyperion usage
  1. Widor: Piano Concertos & Fantaisie (CDA67817)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: November 2011
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