The third in the ten-part series of Widor’s organ symphonies from Stewart and Apperley at St Paul’s Cathedral

The Widor Project
Organ Symphony No 3, Op 13, No 3

Richard Apperley at the digital organ

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Friday 26 April, 12:45 pm

This performance, by Richard Apperley, of Widor’s third organ symphony confirmed me as an organ devotee, a condition facilitated by my being free from the (usually ill-founded) reservations that many classical music lovers cherish concerning French music.

This was one of Widor’s first four ‘symphonies’, Op 13, published in 1872, shortly after his appointment to the prestigious position of organist at the church of Saint-Sulpice in the 6th arrondissement (Paris, Left Bank). It is the second largest church in Paris, after Notre Dame, and the organ is the largest of the many built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll through the mid 19th century, in churches all over France and elsewhere. The one in Saint-Sulpice is his master-piece. (The biggest organ in France is in Saint-Eustache and is not by Cavaillé-Coll).

After hearing the second organ symphony a month ago, I felt as if I was meeting an old friend with this one. The complex of rich sounds that Widor prescribes from the organ’s huge range was wonderfully captured by Apperley on the digital organ which the Cathedral has bought awaiting the restoration of the earthquake-damaged pipe organ. As with the previous performance from Michael Stewart, the placing of the console at floor level in front of the choir allowed us to admire the spectacle of the organist at close quarters: the ranging of hands across all four manuals and the feet dancing on the pedals. It’s an experience that in some ways beats a pianist’s virtuosic activities at the single keyboard.

It struck me that the constantly changing registrations at all five keyboards, prescribed in detail in Widor’s score, was a good deal more varied than in most organ performances. Though one doesn’t usually get such a close-up view of the performer’s activities.

Cavaillé-Colle plus Widor produces the organ symphony
The reason that Widor described the work as a symphony is the revelatory experience of the remarkable range of sounds that Cavaillé-Colle’s versatile and spectacular instruments had made available: a lot more symphonic than was possible on earlier organs. Though it’s pointed out that the early symphonies don’t conform to the normal specifications of a symphony (but Berlioz had broken that tradition forty years before), since then it has been the length, complexity, intellectual quality and aesthetic sophistication of later 19th century works that tended to distinguish the orchestral symphony from, say, a suite. Likewise, for an organ symphony.

I had no difficulty in hearing the first movement, Prélude, as introducing a work of symphonic scale, with its chromatic and harmonic qualities, its symphonically evolving thematic material and the thrilling range of near-orchestral sounds. The Minuette, second movement, had a charming pastoral spirit, easily associated with the ‘minuet’ of the classical symphony, with a contrasting middle section that becomes airy and insubstantial, with its modified rhythms though still in triple time. The Marcia, third movement, is the most striking, with a great deal delivered on the powerful ‘Great’ manual, switching suddenly to quieter, more muffled stops on the Solo (or was the top manual the ‘Swell’?). It was interesting to be able to see these transitions, not merely to guess which manual the player was using. The Marcia climaxed in a real militaristic, victorious fff (really? two years after French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war?).

The slow movement was the fourth, Adagio; played with a variety of subtle stops, creating a beautiful rhapsodic quality. I couldn’t help feeling that it was the sort of movement that RNZ Concert, with its obsession with playing isolated movements ripped from the body in which they had been conceived, could make use of. It might even be justified if it were to introduce people to a neglected corner of classical music.

And the last movement, though not labelled ‘Toccata’, has recognisable characteristics of the 5th symphony; marked Allegro molto. Thematically more varied than the famous one, and almost as arresting, it was also a spectacle for the ‘happy few’ in the audience. Apperley’s hands raced vertically as well as horizontally across the four manuals and the 60 odd keys on each, plus agile feet on pedals. But I was left with far more than the excitement of a half hour of organ virtuosity; I’m looking forward to booking part of Friday lunchtimes to hear all the rest, and even exploring the possibility of finding recordings to buy. Joseph Nolan is the one, by the look of it.

Widor’s innovation has had a significant impact on organ music. Wikipedia lists 29 composers who have written organ symphonies, only one of whom predates Widor by a couple of years.

So this is probably an organ exploration with a certain claim to international significance. The musical gifts and the interpretive insights of the two organists involved certainly justify such a claim.

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