Classical Music Review: New Releases

Charles-Marie Widor - Works for Violin and Piano. Sonata No. 1 for piano and violin, op. 50; Romance in E for violin (with piano accompaniment), op. 46; Cavatine for violin and piano, op. 57; Suite Florentine for violin and piano; Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano, op. 79.  Janet Packer, violin; Orin Grossman, piano.  Centaur CRC 2475 (70'45).

This recording, featuring the loveliest violin playing I've heard in some time, exists as the result of a fortuitous discovery in a Paris used-music store.  There Janet Packer found one of Widor's violin and piano scores and was impressed enough to seek out other of his works for that combination.

Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) is best known today as a composer for the organ.  Inspired by his teacher César Franck, he created the genre of the organ symphony and was for 64 years the organist at Saint-Sulpice, which housed one of the finest organs in France.  He taught organ to Charles Tournemire and Louis Vierne and, as Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatory, his students included Marcel Dupré, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Edgard Varèse, and Nadia Boulanger.  He also collaborated with Albert Schweitzer on his edition of Bach's organ music.  He wrote ten organ symphonies and three orchestral symphonies as well as numerous pieces in other forms, but like Camille Saint-Saëns he outlived his generation and much of his music had fallen into neglect by the end of his life.

The Sonata No. 1 (1881) is dominated by the piano, which introduces the principle themes and leads the development in the  classical-sounding opening movement.  The violin augments and responds to the material introduced by the piano.  In the second movement the partnership is more equal, the two instruments trading variations on a pair of restrained themes, one with a distinctive ascending cadence.  In the more rhythmic finale, the piano reasserts its dominance.  Many of the secondary themes in this sonata have a hymn-like serenity which emerge like islands of repose from the the more vibrant outer sections of the movements.

The Sonata No. 2 (1907, revised in 1937), dedicated to Jules Massenet, is a more adventurous and challenging work.  The first movement opens with a minor-key theme played in the low register of the piano.  The movement is at times strident and a sense of tonic ambiguity pervades throughout, lending a sense of drama.  This tonal uncertainty is carried through to the slow middle movement, which sounds distinctly modern.  The finale also offers surprises.  It opens with a florid passage on solo violin.  The piano enters tentatively, seeming to meander.  Another blast from the violin and the movement gains momentum, recycling and transforming material from the earlier parts of the sonata.  All in all, the work is a tour de force, a sonata of great depth and complexity.

The Romance (1889, rev. 1912) is a short piece featuring a lovely melody carried by the violin with piano accompaniment, and the Cavatine (1887) is adapted from the Adagio of Widor's Eighth Organ Symphony.  The Suite Florentine is a collection of four brief pieces, all of which suggest that Widor had a strong melodic sense.  All the pieces recorded here (all premier recordings save for the Sonata No. 2) make a strong case for Widor as a composer outside the somewhat recherché world of organ music.

The playing of Orin Grossman and, especially, Janet Packer is wonderful.  Both tailor their styles to Widor's idiom.  Parker has just the right amount of expressiveness and never overwhelms the often intricate piano accompaniment.  A splendid release!

Tony Gualtieri
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