Charles-Marie Widor was and still is like Louis Vierne one the most important organ composers and all organists know that he was organist at the famous Saint-Sulpice in the heart of Paris for 64 years. With the help from the organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll he became a student of Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens and was later to become professor at the Conservatoire in Paris succeeding César Franck. Through his work as a teacher he defined the way of organ playing a tradition and style which is still alive today. As an advocate of the instruments of Cavaillé-Coll he helped to inaugurate several very important instruments such as Notre-Dame de Paris, Saint-Germain-des-Près, the Trocadéro, and Saint-Ouen de Rouen. Like Louis Vierne his influence cannot be underestimated.
We are so fortunate that he chose to record 6 sides for the French department of HMV in 1932 the year before he retired. It’s quite obvious that he or his recording company wished to preserve his interpretation of his own works. So they chose to record parts of the Symphonie Gothique which by my best estimate was not a commercially interesting piece at that time. The Gothique was recorded on four sides: two sides for a complete take of the first movement, one side for the second movement, and the last side for the last section of the Finale. Cutting and pasting to fit the time limited 78rpms was typical for the early era of record making. Finally he chose to record his every popular Toccata from the 5th symphony.
When listening to these recordings and especially the Toccata we must keep in mind that Widor was 88 years old at the time he recorded. One anecdote tells that he had said when recording the Toccata that “he was closer to the grave than the organ bench”.
One other very important note to these recordings is that Widor was one of the oldest musicians to record. It’s interesting to listen to a musician who had had his musical education from teachers born in the first part of the 19th century and was fully developed as a musician well before the turn of the century. Other French instrumentalists born like Widor in the first part of the 19th century who did make recordings is e.g. Francis Planté (1839-1934), Raoul Pugno (1852-1914) (almost) and Camille Saint-Säens (1835-1921). They all represent a style and taste where rubato was well defined and tastefully rendered in an almost nonpersonal/objective manner. The musical lines are always bold and organic. In my personal opinion I find these recordings even more important than the Vierne recordings due to the repertoire recorded (his own music) and the circumstance that Widor was 88 years old and represents a style almost not documented on organ.
A technical note: We had difficulties splicing the two sides of the Toccata together. The problem is that Widor makes a ritardando towards the end of the first side and stops by making some sort of arpeggio. Again great thanks to Michael Gartz for providing the original 78rpms in great condition and to Claus Byrith for cleaning and cutting the recordings afterwards. Like the Louis Vierne-recordings I can present the best transfer available.