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Previously released as six separate discs across five years from 2012, Joseph Nolan’s survey of Widor’s organ works is now available as a complete box set of eight CDs. Nolan has, rightly, received wide praise for these recordings and I have enthusiastically reviewed some already. Now is therefore the moment for a retrospective of the overall project and, inevitably, draw comparisons with others on the market. I wonder, if budget had allowed, whether Nolan would have preferred to have taken more time recording on some of the finest Cavaillé-Colls which Widor himself admired so much: his own beloved instrument at Saint- Sulpice or that of Saint-Ouen in Rouen. While Ben van Oosten took five years to record his cycle, Nolan reveals in his notes that he had five nights to record all ten symphonies (with three hour’s preparation). An impressive feat indeed, but it does suggest that the attraction of recording in La Madeleine was as much the advantage of a modern sequencer as Nolan’s acknowledged desire for generous acoustics. The Madeleine organ has always been a forceful instrument and, for me, not the best match for this music. It is a shame that Nolan did not avoid the more recent additions (such as the aggressive en chamades), as others have done when recording 19th-century music. Fortunately, Signum had the confidence to support Nolan recording the remaining Widor works on two fine historic Cavaillé-Coll instruments, which comes as a huge bonus alongside the earlier symphonies.

With these recordings, Nolan has nobly sought to elevate the stature of these symphonies, when Widor himself referred to them as ‘a collection of fantasy pieces’. Nolan convinces us to consider ‘symphony’ in its oldest sense as a ‘concord of sound’, a harmonious combination of elements, textures and colours: ‘My overriding view was that a monumental, supersized symphonic approach should be adopted.’ Some might find this too heavy or lugubrious, perhaps preferring the spryer new Widor recordings from Christian Schmitt (notably recorded in Saint-Ouen). However, for me the real success of Nolan’s venture is to deliver a truly virtuoso performance which is grounded in, but not slavish to, a thorough interpretation of the editorial challenges.

RUPERT GOUGH Read the full review on Agora Classica

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