Widor survived till 1937, succeeding Cesar Franck at the Paris Conservatoire and clocking up 64 years at the columned church on the Rive Gauche, before relinquishing its massive five-manual Cavaille-Coll organ to his protege Marcel Dupre. His compositions, which include chamber and orchestral music, songs and even opera, range far more widely than is generally realised, although it is on the symphonies for organ that his reputation most solidly rests.
Westminster Cathedral's retrospective encompasses half a dozen of these, and sets this Parisian grand maitre in context by including major organ works by his pupils Vierne, Dupre and other suitable worthies. The centrepiece orchestral concert on Tuesday starred James O'Donnell, fresh from Westminster's striking Hyperion recording of Widor's Messe Solennelle, as the soloist in the wide-arching Symphony No 3 for organ and orchestra, composed as a riposte to that of his colleague, Saint-Saens. Vierne gave its premiere in Geneva in 1893, under Widor's baton.
Completing the evening were triumphal marches for organ and brass and a clutch of other French rarities. When does one ever get a chance to judge works like these, in such a rewarding context? Focal to the evening's audacious programming and palpable success was the BBC Concert Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth. The BBC SO may be the BBC's flagship, or thoroughbred, but the Concert Orchestra is its admirable workhorse. The range of repertory these musicians make accessible to radio audiences, from Berwald to Bernstein, is staggering. So is the aplomb and precision, on short rehearsal spans, that they bring to it.
Widor's Third Symphony is a mixed bag, not as catchy as Saint-Saens's, which it echoes in design and orchestration. It takes time growing from an effective hushed pizzicato opening in cellos and double-basses; it hints at Wagner affiliations, toys with the odd suspect modulation, and finally snorts to life as the orchestra embraces a chorale which the soloist in dialogue has shyly striven to interject. A clutch of well-taken horn soli and warm string playing were among the evening's cheering leitmotifs. Both the Borodinesque scherzo and the final massing of full organ and orchestra, bursting on the scene like a blaze of "Ein Feste Burg", raised the hairs. No masterpiece, but a rare hearing to be savoured.
Westminster's generous, all-encompassing acoustic, with the seats turned round to face the West end, was to be relished. So was its enhancing of detail: solo woodwind, string and muted horns in Saint-Saens's Danse Macabre; O'Donnell's tasteful melding of soft reeds and diapasons on the four-manual Willis organ for Franck's improvisatory Final; a Berliozian funereal resplendence to Widor's opening march for seven brass, organ and timpani; or Vierne's outrageously brazen music for the Napoleon Centenary, with evocative brass canzona heralding a march that suggests the entire Imperial Guard swaying down the Champs Elysees in ghoulish cortege.
But the supreme achievement of the evening was Wordsworth's sympathetic rendering of Maurice Durufle's orchestrated Andante and Scherzo. A glory of a piece, from the elegiac seascape that opens it, a Monet watercolour in sound on a rising tide of rich middle strings, to bewitching interpellations of triple woodwind and cor anglais, that cede to a Firebird-ish scherzo from which one expects Nijinsky to emerge at any moment. Just here and there, the gossamer touches could have been lighter still.
This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a later date. The Widor season at Westminster Cathedral continues on 12 and 26 Aug and 9 Sept (booking from Ticketmaster on 0171-344 4444)