In the last few years there has been a laudable interest in revealing the wider scope of composers otherwise known for a narrow range of output. Tournemire’s eight symphonies, for example, or Vierne’s orchestral songs on Melba. The most recent addition to Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series is a disc entirely devoted to the piano and orchestra output of one-hit wonder, Charles-Marie Widor—known to the vast majority of us solely by his famous Toccata, and even beyond that only for his organ music. It comes therefore as something of a surprise that he wrote works in such mainstream genres as song and concerto forms. Unlike that other organist-composer Louis Vierne, who was a near-contemporary of Ravel, the clue to Widor’s music comes in his dates: 1844 to 1937; old enough to have heard Liszt play, yet long-lived enough to have witnessed the remarkable explosion of musical modernity in the first quarter of the 20thcentury. As in Saint-Saëns’ work, there is little direct trace of the influence of such radicalism in Widor’s musical language, however, and while the two large-scale concertos sound more like Brahms than Franck, they exhibit a seriousness of approach that belies the light-weight reputation of late 19thcentury French music, while remaining recognisably Gallic. Even the choice of keys, F minor and C minor respectively, speaks of brooding earnestness.
The First Concerto of 1876 stands in stark contrast to the roughly contemporary Piano Concerto of Benjamin Godard; there is none of the post-Felicién David exoticism, or the Berliozian picturesqueness. Apart from a whiff or the opera in the third movement, the concerto recalls Schumann above all, not just in Widor’s very accomplished piano writing, and the harmonic sense, but even in the orchestrations. This is a subtle, fluid, expansive and highly successful concerto that flatly contradicts the perception of Widor as a composer of brief, monolithic organ works. The second work on the CD, the Fantaisie in A flat major, announces its independence of the concertos both by its langorous opening and its use of a key traditionally expressive of reverie—Liszt’s famous Liebesträum for example (although, tellingly, it is still the relative major of the First Concerto’s F minor). This particular genre, the one-movement concertante Fantasy, is a particularly French idiom, similar works exist by Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Debussy, Koechlin, and even Ravel was contemplating a Basque Rhapsody. One would never pick the Second Concerto as a French work, with its ominously dark first movement—but then, it manages to be just a little too elegant to convince as Germanic—and the second movement is a marvellously limpid, almost Rachmaninovian Andante, with occasional hints that Widor had heard the emerging music of the Impresionists. Momentary colouristic touches of chromatic harmony in the final movement flag this as a 20thcentury work, but on the whole none of Widor’s music as presented here would have caused any discomfort to a late 19thcentury listener.
These are truly magnificent concertos, and deserve a place in orchestral programs—it is scarcely credible that this CD offers the first recordings of the two concertos. The fleet-fingered Markus Becker makes light work of the pianistic difficulties, but one can tell just how challenging they really are; the BBC National Symphony of Wales under Thierry Fischer provide a full-blooded ripieno, and the recordings are impeccable. Until such time as these works appear in a concert hall near you, this excellent CD will have to do. Highly recommended.