GMCD 7305 – Organ Symphonies by Widor with Colin Walsh
Colin Walsh at the Organ of Lincoln Cathedral
Char1es-Marie Widor published both of these organ symphonies in 1879. Innovations in organ designs had expanded the possibilities ofthe instrument’s co10r and dynamic range, and Widor masterly developed this potential. Played in their entirety, these symphonies can be first-rate showpieces for both organists and organ. Wa1sh gives us a fine recording and Guild has captured the organ of Lincoln Cathedral in magnificent sound that is clear and full. But, although Wa1sh’s performances generally are satisfying, this disc falls short of the highest recommendations. As good as Wa1sh is, he doesn’t have the pop or explosiveness ofOlivier Latry’s recording ofthese symphonies in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Latry sounds more overwhelming, more natural, more right. Wa1sh is polite and reserved, while Latry has an abandon, an almost rough, wild quality that brings out an extra dimension in this music.
The problem is that Wa1sh’s interpretations consistently are slow, resulting in a sedated feel.
The clearest example is in the Toccata from the Fifth Symphony, certainly Widor’s most famous music. Wa1sh takes more than two minutes longer than Peter Hurford on Decca and Marie-C1aire A1ain on Erato. Latry’s recording is even faster. Each of these alternative approaches galvanizes us and generates more electricity than Wa1sh, who appears tame and a bit ponderous. Of course, not everything in this symphony is designed to excite, and Wa1sh brings nice lyricism to the second movement. His slower tempos in the Andantino third movement enable him to linger a little longer than Latry and make more of emotional depth. The fourth movement Adagio is on the slow side but still enjoyable. But the life is drained out of the piece by the pacing of the Toccata.
The same tendencies are repeated throughout the Sixth. David Patrick’s recording at the Coventry Cathedral on ASV, Wayne Marshall’s on Virgin, and Latry’s all are consistently faster and more exciting. Timings alone cannot tell the story but they are a strong indicator. Wa1sh unleashes a massive assault in the opening Allegro movement. Here, Marshall seems in too much of a hurry, but Latry has just the right tempo and balance. Some may prefer Wa1sh’s more relaxed tempos in the second movement Adagio but this dragged for me. Wa1sh does a nice job with the fleet Intermezzo third movement, and Cantabile fourth movement. But, once again, we cannot quite experience Widor’s stirring climax because Wa1sh holds back. There is a sense of triumph, but it is muted, particularly when compared to the rush to glory one experiences with Latry.
In spite of my reservations, there is much to enjoy in this recording, which provides a good way to experience two fantastic organ symphonies. A qualified recommendation.
John E Ross
American Record Guide March/April 2007
Walsh, Organist Laureate at Lincoln Cathedral since January 2003, continues his frequent appearance in these pages with two standards by Widor. The 4-70 Willis (1898)/ Harrison & Harrison (1998) is heard to acceptable effect by the skills of Guild’s engineers, but clever engineering can’t make an organ sound like a different instrument. I made similar comments about an earlier Walsh recording (J/F 2005) from Lincoln. There are only three 3-rank mixtures available, which robs any performance of the brightness often called for. As before, a somewhat bland sonority prevails, and Walsh’s tempos are predictably slow. The lovely Adagio in 5 takes Latry 4:10, Parker-Smith 4:11; Walsh takes 7:06. It’s not merely sluggish; it lacks flow. The unavoidable Toccata is also the slowest I know (vs. Latry, Nordstoga, Van Oosten, Parker-Smith, Van Vliet). Symphony 6 fares a bit better, but even here three of the five movements are slowest.
Lest this appraisal come across as terminally gloomy it should be said that the accuracy is there. It is simply that there are many more appealing recordings of these popular works (Latry-BNL 112617; Nordstoga-Simax 1073; Seynhave-Cypres 1631, S/O 2001; Chaisemartin-Motette 11131; Pincemaille-Solstice 181).
The 1946 Lyric for quartet was culled in similar manner to the Barber quartet from the composer’s Quartet 1. It is a somber but still upbeat piece that is not of the same cloth as Barber’s impassioned Adagio. The Perimeters for clarinet and piano find the composer in new territory, blowing with the atonal winds that were prevalent at the time. The work is reflective and casually dramatic, its three movements not that varied in tone.
Canvas for Wind Ensemble, Voices, and Chorus is a recent work (2000) that is rather confusing-tonal, certainly listenable, but the text by Walker is full of mildly political-philosophical jargon that doesn’t match the music. Ending with Psalm 121, the message of the whole piece is neither consistent nor particularly coherent.
And this could be said for all of the music an this album. Walker is a fine composer, but this collection is probably not the best introduction to his work.
Yet one of the more interesting portions is Walker’s performance of the Liszt B-minor Sonata. He is an outstanding pianist, and his take an the Liszt is unusual. It is slower in some of the more bravura passages, and pedaling is used sparsely, making for a dry and very manicured approach that I found pleasing and colorful, if not the last word in passion. The slowness of the approach also makes the work somewhat diffuse (more than usual), but it is clear that this is a well thought-out performance with many felicities.
The sound is excellent, though the (unsigned) notes were written by someone with a chip an the shoulder, making stabs at Stravinsky’s blurbs about the powerless nature of music to express things (“arrogant, historically invalid”). Stravinsky is the last person I think of when listening to Walker’s music, so I am not sure what the beef is all about.
Choir & Organ January/February 2007
Two much recorded pieces are performed by the Organist Laureate of Lincoln Cathedral. Walsh’s sensitive and virtuosic performances appear to echo the influence of his teacher, Jean Langlais; tempi are carefully selected to allow both Widor’s music and the refined tone of the Father Willis Organ space to breathe in the acoustic. The organist’s balance in achieving this without permitting the music to lose impetus is exquisite. The famous Toccata demonstrates this perfectly: the organ’s weighty pedal section rumbles gloriously -without obscuring the intricacies above.
CMQ, December 2006
On the front of this CD there is an attractive print of St Sulpice in Paris in tie 1820s. A few decades later, a youthful Charles-Marie Widor was given a year’s trial as Organist. Sixty-four years later he retired from the post, having pioneered the concept of the organ symphony: fall-scale symphonic works using a newly-discovered and distinctive palette of sound colours ranging from flutes and gambas to trumpets and reeds. These were the newly-developed French romanfic organs, as exemplified by builders such as Aristide Cavaillé-Col, whose instrument can still be heard in St Sulpice to this day. Colin Walsh’s account of two of Widor’s Works on an Instrument several hundred miles to the north is a faithful reflection of the composer’s prescribed registrations, and an excellent and atmospheric recording it is too. Walsh’s tempo of the famous Toccata from the Fifth Symphony seems an the steady side bat there is a precedent, namely Widor’s speed in his own recording of the work. Whatever your preference, this will make an enjoyable addition to your CD collection.
They say that on a clear day you can see Lincoln Cathedral from the top of York Minster’s central tower. I am not sure that the converse is the case as Lincoln is built on a hill and York lies on a plain. Yet it is a nice thought. It was more than forty years ago, in 1961 that the Duke and Duchess of Kent were married at York Minster and had Widor’s Toccata played by Dr Francis Jackson as the concluding voluntary. Ever since, brides have been partial to this ‘war horse’ and it has become exceptionally popular. How many times has it been played on an inadequate organ with an equally baffled organist? Of course the down-side is that the Toccata is now totally divorced from its context and has become a favourite for CD compilations and classical radio stations.
And of course here lies the problem. It applies to the Finale of the 6th Symphony as well. Compilers of organ music CDs have long regarded these two works as being essential pot-boilers. A brief look at the catalogue shows some 49 versions of the ‘famous’ Toccata presently available. This compares to just ten recordings of the complete 5th Symphony. The 6th Symphony is even less well served with only eight recordings. Yet listen to Classic FM or hunt around the CDs in W. H. Smith or even the smaller HMV shops and you would be forgiven for thinking that Widor only ever penned one piece.
The facts are very different. There are some eleven organ symphonies in the composer’s catalogue if we include the numbered works and the Symphonie Latine. Yet how many of these are in the repertoire of organists? How many recordings are easily available in ‘good music shops?’
I have often been accused of musical snobbishness when I eschew listening to single movements of Widor – or Vierne and Guilmant – I accept that when a piece is used as a voluntary after Mass or at a wedding that we cannot expect the entire Symphony. But when it is given in the context of a concert I would like to think that the entire work would be played. It seems to me unfair to excerpt movements from these great monuments to French organ music. Would we be happy to attend a recital at the Wigmore Hall and hear selected movements from Beethoven’s String Quartets or Mozart Piano Sonatas? I think not.
And this brings me to the present CD. We are lucky to have been presented with two of the greatest Organ Symphonies in the repertoire. Colin Walsh approaches these two master works with considerable experience and understanding. He is a passionate advocate of Romantic French organ music. And to this enthusiasm he brings both a superb technical ability and a fine understanding of organ registration. I listened to both these works with the score in front of me and I was impressed by the inventiveness and sometimes sheer ingenuity of his registrations and his interpretation of dynamics.
But the most vital aspect of Walsh’s playing is his approach to these works as unified structures. So often we hear movements from these symphonies played singly. But the genius of Widor was his ability to create a huge organic work. >From the first note to the last of both these great symphonies every note counts and the moods of the individual movements build up into something much bigger that the whole. Walsh is able to provide both the unity and the balance between the movements and even the sections within those movements.
And of course the organ helps the performance. The instrument at Lincoln Cathedral was originally built by Father Henry Willis in 1898. Some 100 years later it was renovated and enlarged by Harrison & Harrison. There are 64 speaking stops along with a myriad of couplers and solid state control equipment.
There are a number of versions of the Widor 5th and 6th Symphonies. I have usually plumped for Ben van Oosten playing on a Cavaillé-Coll organ. But I am so impressed by this CD that I would have to recommend it to anyone who wishes to explore this unbelievably exciting and equally beautiful music.
It is difficult to point out highlights – but I would have to suggest the gorgeous ‘Cantabile’ from the 6th Symphony and perhaps the opening ‘Allegro Vivace’ of the 5th. Only one slight problem – I did feel that the ‘famous’ Toccata ‘dragged’ ever so slightly – whereas the magnificent ‘Finale’ of the 6th Symphony is absolutely stunning.
Finally the quality of the recording is exactly what we have come to expect from Guild and the programme notes are impressive.