Charles-Marie Widor played a big part in forming the genre of the organ symphony. Strange, you might think, to write a symphony for organ when there’s a full orchestra available to you, but when you consider the organs that Widor would have been writing for in France, they have enough voices in their own right.
Widor’s organ symphonies have suffered through the relative popularity of his Toccata, often extracted from the fifth symphony and performed alone. Here it’s the fourth symphony that shines, with its six contrasting movements forming a coherent whole. The central slow music captivates most, with a lyrical melody given a gorgeous mellow sound by the organist Marie-Claire Alain.
With its arresting opening of a march-like Toccata and firm closure, the fourth symphony stands up well. The ninth, subtitled the ‘Gothique’, is also a competent work if not quite so immediate, with a growling opening Moderato and some intricate high register figures in the slow second movement.
This reissue of 1980s recordings begins with extracts from the third symphony which doesn’t help its cause – I’d rather have heard the work in its entirety or a more logical coupling. The opening, sombre Prelude is well judged by Alain, and the ending of the finale is extremely atmospheric, perhaps justifying its inclusion.
Some welcome exposure for Widor’s music then, with the fourth symphony particularly recommended. It would also be good to see Alain’s Vierne recordings reissued in this Elatus series from Warner.