Widor: The Organ Symphonies, Vol.1

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Widor: The Organ Symphonies, Vol.1

The Cavaille-Coll organ of La Madeleine, Paris

 Joseph Nolan

Organ Symphony No.6 in G minor, Op.42, Organ Symphony No.5 in in F minor, Op.42

Volume 1 in a new collection of Charles-Marie Widor’s Organ Symphonies, performed by Joseph Nolan on the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ of L'église de la Madeleine, Paris. 

Bridging the generations from Mendelssohn to Messiaen, Empire to Republic, Widor was born to the organ. His Lyonnaise kinsfolk were organ-builders, he showed early talent for the instrument, and for decades was the embodiment of its might and splendour across the Gallic domain - his ‘Organ Symphonies’ were genre-defining in their influence. 
 
Joseph Nolan is an internationally renowned organist, acclaimed as ‘brilliant and such an astute musician’ (Gramophone UK). He was appointed to Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal, St James’s Palace in 2004, and has since been invited to perform and record in some of the world’s premiere venues - including the refurbished Organ of Buckingham Palace Ballroom (SIGCD114) and the Organ of Saint-Sulpice in Paris (SIGCD167). The Cavaillé-Coll Organ of La Madeleine, Paris is a similarly renowned instrument, with former chief-organists including Camille Saint-Säens and Gabriel Fauré. 
 
“These performances are full of spontaneity yet for all Nolan’s brilliance he allows the requirements of the composer always to take priority. The sympathy and expression that Nolan gives to this music and the assurance of his results will undoubtedly give this recital a special place amongst organ collectors”
Musicweb International (for SIGCD167 – The Organ of Saint-Sulpice, Paris)
 



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What people are saying

"This looks like shaping up to be the Widor Organ Symphonies cycle of the decade" Musicweb International, August 2013 

"Nolan’s interpretations are musically first-class ... organ enthusiasts should certainly acquire this disc for the sake of Nolan’s admirable musical intelligence." International Record Review, November 2012

"Nolan hovers over all like some musical demiurge, fleet of feet and fingers as he negotiates the massive chords and filigree passagework of faster movements such as the closing Vivace of Symphony No 6; thoughtful and sensitive yet smouldering with creative tension in slower movements" Limelight Magazine, Australia 

"Gothic music meets Gothic organ here in performances that encompass a broad expressive spectrum from quiet meditation to dramatic thunder and lightning."  The Times 

 

 

Jospeh Nolan, organ

Release date: 7th May 2012
Order code: SIGCD292
Barcode: 635212029220

1.Organ Symphony No.6 in G minor, Op.42 No.2: i. AllegroCharles-Marie Widor9.06
2.Organ Symphony No.6 in G minor, Op.42 No.2: ii. AdagioCharles-Marie Widor7.22
3.Organ Symphony No.6 in G minor, Op.42 No.2: iii. Intermezzo: AllegroCharles-Marie Widor6.16
4.Organ Symphony No.6 in G minor, Op.42 No.2: iv. CantabileCharles-Marie Widor5.40
5.Organ Symphony No.6 in G minor, Op.42 No.2: v. Finale: VivaceCharles-Marie Widor6.32
6.Organ Symphony No.5 in in F minor, Op.42, No.1: i. Allegro vivace - Piu lentoCharles-Marie Widor10.19
7.Organ Symphony No.5 in in F minor, Op.42, No.1: ii. Allgro cantabileCharles-Marie Widor8.04
8.Organ Symphony No.5 in in F minor, Op.42, No.1: iii. Andantino quasi allegrettoCharles-Marie Widor8.24
9.Organ Symphony No.5 in in F minor, Op.42, No.1: iv. AdagioCharles-Marie Widor4.32
10.Organ Symphony No.5 in in F minor, Op.42, No.1: v. Toccata: AllegroCharles-Marie Widor6.05
July 2013
 
Although recordings of Charles-Marie Widor's famous toccata abound, finding a good one is difficult.
 
Too often it is buried away in organ anthologies that treat it as a mere showpiece, which of course it's not -- the toccata forms the last movement of his Organ Symphony No 5 in F minor. When played out of context, it loses some of its impact. Mattias Wager's version in Organ Treasures (Opus 3 Records) is a corker of a performance if one just wants the toccata.
However, to hear the whole Symphony No 5 in F minor and its Op 42 pair, Symphony No 6 in G minor, a good choice is Joseph Nolan on Signum Classics. This renowned English organist, who was appointed to Her Majesty's Chapels Royal, St James Palace, in 2004 and made organist at Perth's St George's Cathedral in 2008, plays one of the great Parisian organs for this recording.
 
It is not Widor's instrument at Saint-Sulpice - a monster boasting five manuals and 102 stops. Instead, it is the smaller but equally revered Cavaille-Coll organ of La Madeleine, where Gabriel Faure was organist. Nolan is authoritative in both symphonies.
 
He has a natural, fluent feel for Widor's highly melodic writing, which leans towards Felix Mendelssohn in spirit. His treatment of rhythm is agilely clean too, in line with the music's buoyant, whimsical personality. There is just one issue concerning the toccata itself. Instead of playing the notes all equal and staccato as marked, Nolan continually leans on rhythms.
 
The result sounds more pliant and less mechanical than usual, but the cost is speed: it feels a tad lethargic.
 

The Australian, Graham Strahle

 
Why did Widor entitle the sixth movement of his second symphony Adagio and then direct it to be played Andante? Still, Symphonie is a misnomer too in the general absence of movements in Sonata form. Moving on, though…
 
Unerringly Cavaillé-Coll and a superb acoustic ambience captivate and grab us – by the ears and indeed by the throat [lumps in the] from bar one. Unbounded admiration, as Widor judges to a nicety the moment to call forth Swell reeds. Delightful acciaccaturas adorn the high flute melodies of the ensuing Allegr[ett?]o. The energetic Intermezzo harks forward to the Intermezzo of the Sixth Symphony. It too belies its title by sounding more important than its surroundings. The Adagio astounds with the gorgeous positif gambas and celestial voices. so to the preposterous "Pontiff's Progress"! Terrific! Maybe a little terrifying … pompous swagger meets subject incorporating all 12 semitones randomly in its wayward course. The end is serious, uncompromising, no tierce from Picardy relieves its final cadence.
 
Symphonie 2 offers equal delight. This version incorporates the anomalous-seeming Salve Regina movement substituted in the 1901 edition, as well as the chirpy Scherzo it replaced. The recording clarity is remarkable, only final chords revealing that we have been enjoying the fruits of some six seconds of reverberation. Joseph Nolan - formerly organist of St James's Palace, and, from 2008, of Perth Cathedral, Australia - is an utterly persuasive executant at the console. Thoroughly enjoyable. 

 

Michael Bell, Organists' Review

December 2012

Joseph Nolan, ex-Chapels Royal plus inaugurator of the refurbished ballroom organ in Buckingham Palace, and since 2008 cathedral organist at Perth, Australia, has made a most favourable impression recording in France at St Ouen, Rouen, and St Sulpice, Paris. He recorded all 10 symphonies by Widor in just seven evening sessions. The first volume cherry-picks the two most popular symphonies, the Fifth and Sixth (composed in 1879 and 1878 respectively). Neither were specifically written for Widor's own Cavaillé-Coll giant at St Sulpice (the clue here being the need for an expressive positif division). This gives sufficient licence for resources to be scaled down and this is achieved here: the impact of the searing opening Allegro of the Sixth and the omnipresent Toccata of the Fifth, are made more telling, by clarity, than a host of renditions on organs twice the size. But Widor's music is "not for small places or shy instruments". The authentic voicing, with graded and complementary wind pressures, gives "lift" to the melodic lines, and works its magic, unlike hearing Widor in a completely dead acoustic. If the eight other symphonies, particularly the lesser-heard but more spiritual Ninth and Tenth, achieve the same convincing meld, then collectors may want to claim the full set. Let's hope so, as Nolan is an organist of fine discernment and technique with sufficient to say to raise this taster above the ordinary.

Organist's Review, Joe Riley

November 2012

The growth, in the second half of the nineteenth century, of the concept of organ symphonies may have been, at first, exclusively a Franco-Belgian development, stemming perhaps from Berlioz’s five- movement Symphonie fantastique (in itself not an entirely original concept). Yet it remains a curious fact that, with few exceptions, the multi-movement nature of such organ works did not transfer to solely orchestral symphonic writing.

In the organ world, the genius of the great organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (the bicentenary of whose birth was celebrated early last year) almost literally played into the hands of composers, aided by the later developments in Liszt’s and Wagner’s music (exemplified in later ecclesiastical works by certain French composers). Structurally they reach as far forward as Milhaud’s five-movement Second Symphony (1944) and Messiaen’s ten-movement Turangalila-Symphonie (1949) – both, incidentally, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (and it was in Massachusetts that complete recordings of Widor’s Fifth and Sixth Organ Symphonies were made, 12 years apart, by Richard Ellsasser).

It is the French connection, rather than that of New England, that concerns us here, and although Widor himself brilliantly recorded the Toccata from his Fifth Symphony, 80 years ago, at the age of 88 (!), that was in the great Parisian church of St Sulpice, where he had been organist for over 60 years, not in the church selected here by Joseph Nolan, La Madeleine (both churches contain notable examples of Cavaillé-Coll’s work).

The structure of Widor’s ten organ symphonies remains unique and they were subjected to almost constant revision, but there is a difference between their ‘symphonic’ nature as opposed to an adoption of ‘sonata form’. This may be a fine line, yet we can still be astonished by the continuity of genuine symphonic writing in Widor’s works, such as – in the Fifth Symphony – by having an opening movement which is a set of variations, and by ending the work with a Toccata (only in Vaughan Williams’s Eighth Symphony do we re-encounter such an enveloping symphonic plan).

It must be clear, even to the non-organ specialist, that these works demand much of the player who would undertake them, and not merely in their technical demands. Nolan gives completely convincing performances of both works, managing to avoid the somewhat pietistic nature which is not so far removed from the ethos of several of Widor’s slow movements – and which some pious organists have been known to exaggerate – by the adoption of intelligent and finely sustained tempos, and by avoiding the emotive magnification of certain passages, which ought surely to be performed without emphasis. Nolan is excellent in this regard throughout both symphonies and his registration is exemplary.

However, the newcomer to these works may encounter some difficulties in unravelling Widor’s harmonic and contrapuntal thought here, for the actual sound quality is not as clear as one should wish. There is a disappointing element of obfuscation in the sound, which may be endemic to La Madeleine, but which one hoped the engineers might have been able to address more successfully than appears to be the case. This remains, of course, the ‘sound’ of the church, about which Ates Orga writes in his accompanying notes, but to appreciate more fully that which the composer has put down, and on which he spent much time, we need a greater resultant clarity than mere ‘atmosphere’. Only on sonic grounds do I hesitate to recommend wholeheartedly this issue: Nolan’s interpretations are musically first-class. The booklet tells us that he recorded all ten symphonies at La Madeleine at the time these recordings were made, so future issues in this series may very well reflect a similar aural setting.

Despite my reservations (which are not serious) concerning the recording quality, organ enthusiasts should certainly acquire this disc for the sake of Nolan’s admirable musical intelligence.

International Record Review, Robert Matthew-Walker

October 2012

Joseph Nolan spent seven nights in May 2011 recording all ten Widor organ symphonies at La Madeleine in Paris. This disc is the first product of those sessions. One cannot judge an entire series on the basis of one disc, but Nolan’s performances of the fifth and sixth symphonies indicate real competition for Ben van Oosten’s complete set if Nolan’s succeeding recordings are of the same quality as this one.
 
Widor himself described his first four organ symphonies (published together as Op. 13) as “collections” of individual pieces. In the succeeding symphonies he made more of an effort at thematic and harmonic connection between the movements. The sixth symphony was actually written a year before the fifth and combines adherence to sonata-form with stylistic aspects of French keyboard music of the time as well as a predilection for dance rhythms. Nolan plays the well-known opening allegro with all these elements carefully integrated, easily handling the difficult crescendo in the middle of the movement. He displays equal vigour in the symphony’s central movement - some of his best playing here - while the Cantabile is especially gentle and effective.
 
The fifth symphony is built on variation of material in the first movement and again, several of the movements contain dance rhythms. The first movement is an interesting combination of Lefébure-Wely and the Baroque while the Andantino is surprisingly tense and effective. The last movement is, depending on one’s viewpoint, the ubiquitous or immortalToccata. Nolan does not succumb to the temptation of playing this favourite too quickly - Widor never did either - preferring to point out the different harmonic strands as the movement progresses.
 
Joseph Nolan is totally comfortable with the idiom of these pieces and his tempi are especially to be commended. A few of his stylistic choices seem to derive more from St. James Palace - where Nolan was formerly organist - than from the Madeleine or St. Sulpice but this is perhaps to be expected. He is also somewhat prone to sentimentality in the slow movements, and there is one unfortunate moment in the sixth symphony where the music momentarily gets the better of him. These are small problems. The real issue here is the variable recording quality. There are many sudden dynamic changes that have nothing to do with the performer or the score as well as abrupt changes in sound quality from ultra-sharp to ultra-fuzzy. These sound deficiencies are very distracting and it is to be hoped that they are not as evident in the remaining volumes of Mr. Nolan’s series. Even so this disc is merits high praise as a one-off recording of the two symphonies, although there is strong competition in Colin Walsh’s disc (see review) and in Marie-Claire Alain’s set on Warner Apex (see review), although my colleague Chris Bragg does not agree. As to Mr. Nolan’s succeeding volumes, if the quality of the performances are at the same level as this - in spite of recording deficiencies - this series could rival that of Ben van Oosten as the standard for the Widor symphonies.

Musicweb International, William Kreindler

August 2012

Aficionados of Widor's Toccata will be interested to know that Joseph Nolan adopts the slow and stately approach, rather than the brisk and brash one. This certainly highlights all those tiresome right-hand arpeggios and irregular left-hand chords, but gives ample space in which to savour the grandiloquence of La Madeleine's organ in all its glory; even if that long held high F above the final cadence jars unpleasantly on the ear. Nolan's carefully prepared and immaculately delivered performances also demonstrate that, while the Toccata may be Widor's most popular creation, it is by no means his best. Within the same symphony we hear the marvellous Allegro vivace variations, delivered with enticing neatness and full of ravishing moments. And for sheer sonic excitement, forget the Toccata; turn, instead to Nolan's breathtaking sweep over the Sixth Symphony's finale. While neither symphony was actually conceived for this particular Cavaille-Coll, Joseph Nolan's painstaking approach to registration yields a sound which is about as authentic as you could wish. Add to this his amazingly precise fingerwork, his total mastery of the score and his obvious empathy with this music, and, while you may find more thrilling and colourful recordings out there, this has few challengers when it comes to the utter authority of the performances.

The only problem is that this recording does nothing to dispel the complaint that Widor's symphonies are more a collection of unrelated stand-alone pieces rather than coherent musical structures and, while each movement is thoroughly enticing, taken overall there is a certain lack of coherence which, ultimately,

gives it all a feeling of disjointedness. Of course, if it's the sound of the organ that matters most to you (as is the case with many collectors of organ recordings), then this would not matter one iota.

Gramophone, Marc Rochester

July 2012
 
Charles-Marie Widor was inspired to write symphonies for organ on encountering the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Saint-Sulpice in Paris, and so it makes complete sense to use these legendary instruments to create the sounds Widor was so enthusiastic about exploiting. The organ at la Madeleine has been used in recordings of Widor before, such as that with Frédéric Ledroit on the Skarbo label (see review). The high note tuning issues/reverberation mentioned by William Kreindler in 2008 appear not to be an issue with the present recording, though I don’t have the Skarbo disc for comparison. The sounds here, as the grand opening to the Symphony No. 6 testifies, are characteristic and a tremendous experience. 
We’ve seen this coupling before of course, including that with Colin Walsh on the Avie label (see review) and from the Simax label played by Kåre Norstega. The Simax recording comes from another Cavaillé-Coll organ, that at l’Abbatiale St Etienne de Caen. This does have a magnificent sound though is recorded with less weight in the lower end of the spectrum, which means greater clarity but a touch less oomph. This Signum recording is on the warmer side, which creates a wonderful atmosphere in the slow movements and generates an impressive general picture when everything is happening at once. 
These performances are also excellent. One of the more dubious recordings I’ve long had of these pieces is from a 1994 box set on the Novalis label performed by Günther Kaunzinger. His performances disappoint through being too rushed, and you can hear how Joseph Nolan is far more prepared to allow his instrument to create music at its natural pace rather than forcing a more spectacular and ultimately less attractive interpretation. Just as an example, Nolan’s Intermezzo in the Symphony No. 6 is 6:16 to Kaunzinger’s 4:50, and Nolan doesn’t sound in the least bit slow. His rhythm and articulation is terrific in the Finale of this symphony as well. 
The Organ Symphony No. 5 is by far the better known of these two works, and largely on the strength of its final Toccata, which is one of the best known organ pieces of all time. It is good to hear the work complete of course, and I like Joseph Nolan’s touch with the variation feel of the first movement, adding little touches of rubato and keeping the expressive juices while maintaining a feel for the bigger structural picture and not pulling things around too much. He reminds us that there is wit and humour in this music, as well as fizzing creativity and impressive grandeur - a line which can be drawn back to the terrific fun to be found in works by Lefébure-Wély and further back to Balbastre and the like. The Allegro cantabile second movement is more allegro than some, but still has its gorgeous melodic flow over an ever-moving and restless accompaniment. I relish the space and weight given to the opening of the Andantino quasi allegretto, which moves across our aural landscape like a very large, slowly rolling thing which you want to bite into like balsa wood. The pastorale feel of the Adagio is kept simple, acting as a preface to that famous Toccata, which is superbly done. Joseph Nolan knows just how far he can push his instrument without turning this cascade of notes into meaningless mush, and you have a good sense of the multiple layers of musical invention which have gone into the piece. The final bars are truly stunning. Nolan’s timing is pretty typical at just under 5 minutes excluding reverberation, as compared to Günter Kaunzinger’s slightly mad 4:17 which results in half of the interval coffee cups being spilt and the loss of just about all of the rhythmic subtleties in the piece. 
The booklet tells us that Joseph Nolan recorded his cycle of Widor’s ten symphonies in just seven nights at L’église de la Madeleine, which is no mean achievement. We can expect the standard to be as high as this first volume and this looks like being a set well worth collecting. The sound isn’t perhaps the most revealing you’ll ever come across for this type of organ repertoire, but the atmosphere and timbres are all just as they should be, the performances putting this amongst the top rank for these great works.

Musicweb International, Dominy Clements

ABC Limelight magazine, August 2012

Breathtaking perfromances on one of the world's greatest organs

I'm not sure Charles-Marie Widor would have liked to be remembered simply as the man whose Toccata provides happy couples with the second most popular wedding recessional in history. But there's not much danger of that with organists the calibre of UK-born Joseph Nolan (currently organist and Master of the Choristers at St George's Cathedral, Perth (keeping the sacred flame burning).

Nolan here offers the first fruits of seven nocturnal recording sessions in a row, during which he put down all ten of Widor's organ symphonies at the console of the superb four-manual, 60-stop, 4426-pipe Cavaille-Coll organ of La Madeleine, Paris. The first two symphonies of Widor's Opus 42 are grandly Romantic, five-movement behemoths that balance huge multicoloured edifices of devilish complexity with softer-lit landscapes populated by angelic choirs of varying dimensions. Nolan hovers over all like some musical demiurge, fleet of feet and fingers as he negotiates the massive chords and filigree passagework of faster movements such as the closing Vivace of Symphony No 6; thoughtful and sensitive yet smouldering with creative tension in slower movements such as the multi-faceted Andantino quasi allegretto and melifluous Fith Symphony Adagio. And "that" Toccata, with which the Fith Symphony and the disc end? An absolute ripper of a performance that will have you positively skipping down the aisle.

WY

July 2012

 
The famous Widor organ symphony is the Fifth, its brilliant toccata finale a perennial wedding favourite. Joseph Nolan couples the Fifth with the Sixth Symphony on this first Widor volume, playing the magnificent Cavaille-Coll instrument of La Madeleine in Paris - an organ of just the range and dimensions for which Widor conceived these thrilling five-movement pieces. Gothic music meets Gothic organ here in performances that encompass a broad expressive spectrum from quiet meditation to dramatic thunder and lightning.

The Times

Limelight, August 2012

I'm not sure Charles-Marie Widor would have liked to be remembered simply as the man whose Toccata provides happy couples with the second most popular wedding recessional in history. But there's not much danger of that with organists the calibre of UK-born Joseph Nolan (currently Organist and Master of the Choristers at St George's Cathedral, Perth) keeping the sacred flame burning.

Nolan here offers the first fruits of seven nocturnal recording sessions in a row, during which he put down all ten of Widor's organ symphonies at the console of the superb four-manual, 60-stop, 4426-pipe Cavaille-Coll organ of La Madeleine, Paris. The first two symphonies ofWidor's Opus 42 are grandly Romantic, five-movement behemoths that balance huge multicoloured edifices of devilish complexity with softer-lit landscapes populated by angelic choirs of varying dimensions. Nolan hovers over all like some musical demiurge, fleet of feet and fingers as he negotiates the massive chords and filigree passagework of faster movements such as the closing Vivace of Symphony No 6; thoughtful and sensitive yet smouldering with creative tension in slower movements such as the multi-faceted Andantino quasi allegretto and mellifluous Fifth Symphony Adagio. And "that" Toccata, with which the Fifth Symphony and the disc end? An absolute ripper of a performance that will have you positively skipping down the aisle.

Limelight Magazine, Australia

July 2012

The most encouraging thing about this new release is that it is Vol 1 which implies we will eventually get all of Widor's symphonies from Joseph Nolan. While there are many recordings of these works, Joseph Nolan brings an enthusiasm and vitality to them which are enhanced by the acoustic of La Madeleine.

It is a cliche that the building is the most important stop on any organ but for this recording it seems particularly important. We are always aware of the position of the instrument within the building and the rich sonorities which the space creates. All the more important for a symphonic organ - inaugurated in 1842 - which needs a generous acoustic and a sympathetic recording if the full ambience of the instrument is to flourish.

It certainly does here, not only in the more dramatic movements - the recording ends with the Toccata everybody knows - but in the quieter, more lyrical passages. I particularly enjoyed the bright registration for the Intermezzo from the Sixth Symphony.

In the Fifth Symphony, the Allegro cantabile has a beautiful solo voice and the Adagio creates a gentle sense of drift which is very appealing.

The booklet gives us satisfactory notes on the works and the organ itself, but I would have liked a breakdown of the registration to have been included. It may be too late for future issues, but would be the icing on the cake. Here's to the second volume.

Brian Hicks, Lark Reviews.co.uk