Widor Toccata From Symphony No.5

It occured to Miss Mussel the other day that the organ is the only instrument that requires specialist footwear. It is also the only instrument where the operator is usually invisible, giving the whole affair a rather intriguing mad professor/Wizard of Oz vibe. No other musician, except perhaps a orchestral conductor, has so much power at their fingertips and no other instrument even comes close to matching the sheer physicality of the listening experience.

Organists must often feel like dads with Aston Martins used primarily for the school run and stop-and-go commutes: the top gear is for decoration only. In full bloom, the instrument is resplendent and there is nothing quite like processing the sound in your body before your ears make sense of it.

In Mahler’s 2nd and 8th symphonies, the organ creeps in at the end in a sonic ambush forcing the audience to have a physical reaction in addition the usual audio and visual responses.

On the whole, Miss Mussel doesn’t care much for solo organ repertoire simply because it is sensory overload. Messiaen is a nice change for a musician usually charged with All Things Bright And Beautiful but it usually ends up as a big mess of loud. Interesting at first but not much of an attention-holder.

Charles-Marie Widor’s Toccata avoids the trap of being too fussy for its own good. Here’s Olivier Latry going to town on the Grand Organ at Notre Dame Paris. If you don’t have time for the full 6 minutes, start at 3:05, crank up the speakers and wait for Latry to unleash the nitro.

Widor lived until 1935 and made a recording of this piece at his home church of St Suplice, Paris at the age of 88. That recording has become a curse – at least for Youtube commenters. Tempo is a bit of a sticky wicket for this group. A few of the more amusing ones have been pasted below.

//Okay cool. That sounds similar to the English Hooded Trumpet which has a cap at the top of the tube to keep the muck out…we also have a fractional length reed called “close horn” which are very smooth but next to useless. Rubbishy thing. I guess if the organ was burried it would be voiced pretty full out, tip holes and flues wide open almost shouting and not very musical.

//your opinion, like your grammar, sucks!

//Now I use the revised edition which has the slurred mordents in the first two bars as well as the accents in the left hand chords in the first six bars. That is what he is doing here but sadly the recorder quality isn’t good enough to give us a definite answer. I suppose that is all down to interpretation.

//This is wonderful. I fantasize about living in a wonderful mansion in Florida with a custom player symphonic organ built to my specifications.

//Fruity and French – expressive and ‘felt’. Although at a faster tempo than Widor played it – I do like this version.

//What a stunning rendition. I’ve cried 5 times in my life – birth of my son, Taverner’s choral at the end of Princess Diana’s funeral, and 3 movies. It’s now 6. Beautiful sound in what looks like a beautiful cathedral… I live in London – but I must make a point of visiting ‘Cathedral Basilica’ next time I’m on holiday in the US… hopefully this will be playing. Time to pretend I’ve got ‘something in my eye’.

1 comment

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