Cathedral organ in major series of important French works: Widor’s second organ symphony

The Widor Project at Saint Paul’s Cathedral  

Michael Stewart – organ

Charles-Marie Widor: Symphony No 2, Op 13 no 2

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Friday 29 March, 12:45 pm

I missed the first, on 1 March, of this year-long series of recitals by the two organists at the Cathedral of Saint Paul.  These ‘symphonies’ are not well known in New Zealand, and perhaps in most Anglophone countries, apart from the last movement, Toccata, of the fifth symphony. But according to the authoritative Wikipedia the organ symphonies are among his better known works.

They represent Widor’s early style.

Widor’s first four symphonies, all published under one opus number – 13, are regarded as suites rather than symphonies, the prescription for which remained fairly strictly defined in spite of Berlioz’s revolt in 1830 with the Symphonie fantastique. Widor himself called them ‘collections’.

The second organ symphony has six movements; they were not given dance names as were suites in the early 18th century. Nevertheless, the second symphony, with its prevailing rhapsodic feeling, hardly seems, at first hearing, to conform to the shape of a symphony, each movement of which usually has a very distinct character and always feels a part of a whole, rather than a stand-alone piece (clearly RNZ Concert sees it differently with their timid programming almost all day, of single movements, for fear of scaring philistine listeners).

The name Praeludium circulare, of the first movement, certainly confirmed the impression of a rhapsodic piece whose musical ideas kept returning, with changing keys, fluid and rather beautiful. The following movements generally refrained from imposing much vivid melody on the listener, and words like wispy, insubstantial, ethereal came to mind and certainly seemed to support the name Pastorale: moderato of the second movement. And its prevailing character was reflected in the use of flute and similar registrations, on the upper manuals (the new digital organ has four manuals).

The third movement, Andante, with more use of diapason stops, and more distinct rhythms, with hands moving constantly between manuals seemed more elaborately structured. But it still bore little relationship with a symphony in the German mould. The fourth movement, entitled Salve Regina: Allegro, used a hymn-like tune, perhaps the original Gregorian chant setting of Salve Regina, perhaps a later setting by Palestrina or Lassus –I don’t know. But as it advanced the music became more dense and emphatic, ending with a prolonged chord.

The fifth movement offer a test discriminating between Adagio and Andante; the shift was fairly subtle, though I imagine that familiarity makes the shift sound dramatic. In a blind-fold test, the Finale would not have been hard to identify, with rhythms that got refined and emboldened over the years to evolve into the Toccata of the fifth symphony: this Finale was busy and boisterous.

This recital was advertised as the first major recital series for the new ‘Viscount Regent Classic digital organ which, though sounding every inch a real pipe organ, thrilling to the unruly acoustic of the Cathedral, will not cause the church to question the need to spend money on repairing and restoring the fine old hybrid pipe organ that can sound just a bit more thrilling and authentic (though don’t make me take a blind-fold test).

However, this celebration of Widor is very much worth the journey: the kind of organ music that is more related to the French music of the period (1870s onward), than to the organ music (or any music) of other countries at the time.

The next recital will be Friday 5 April when Richard Apperley will play the third symphony. And see Middle C’s Coming Events for the remaining seven performances, ending in November.

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