LIVE REVIEW Widor organ series Westminster Cathedral, London
Friday 01 August 1997
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)
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
Final Top Gear reviewTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 Iain Duncan Smith's expenses credit card is suspended after he runs up £1,000 debt to taxpayer
- 3 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 4 French woman dies in freak bungee jumping accident
- 5 Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck to divorce and end their 10-year marriage
Top Gear: Former co-host James May to present new BBC2 car show
The Rolling Stones announce biggest ever touring rock exhibition with Saatchi Gallery
Glastonbury 2015: The best bits you missed from Lionel Richie and the Dalai Lama to The Libertines' secret set
Glastonbury 2015: The picture of a man crowd surfing in a wheelchair is brilliant, but it wasn't taken at Glastonbury
Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James' Twitter Q&A didn't exactly go as planned
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS