Widor’s Toccata

Gargoyles on the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Gargoyles on the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

 

Let’s finish the week with the awesome power of one of the world’s largest pipe organs…the five keyboards, 109 stops, and nearly 8,000 pipes of the grand organ at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Olivier Latry is performing the virtuosic Toccata from Charles-Marie Widor’s organ Symphony No. 5 in F minor, written in 1879.

Born into a family of organ builders in Lyon, Widor became assistant to Camille Saint-Saëns at L’église de la Madeleine in Paris at the age of 24. In 1890, he succeeded César Franck as organ professor at the Paris Conservatory. His ten symphonies for solo organ are part of a French “organ symphony” tradition which began with Franck’s 1863 Grand pièce symphoniqueYou can hear Widor’s complete Fifth Symphony here.

In the most climactic moments, this instrument (or beast) growls with a stunning, guttural intensity. At the same time, in the upper register, the sound takes on a shimmering sparkle. Listen to all the layers of rhythm that thrust the piece forward, from the rapid arpeggios to the deep pedal tones. It’s an exhilarating ride that descends into muted darkness, then re-emerges and breaks out into an earth-shattering recapitulation. Following the final chord, you’ll get a sense of Notre Dame’s eight and a half second acoustical delay.

New Release: Frédéric Bednarz Plays Franck, Lekeu, Boulanger

51Jfdl4g7YL._SS280Canadian violinist Frédéric Bednarz and pianist Natsuki Hiratsuka have released an exciting new recording of French violin music. The centerpiece of the recording is César Franck’s famous Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano. This is a beautifully colorful and passionate performance with a seamless and cohesive sense of ensemble between violin and piano.

The seldom heard music of Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894) opens the CD. Lekeu’s G major Violin Sonata was commissioned by Eugène Ysaÿe and first performed in 1893. There are echoes of Franck in the music. (César Lekeu studied counterpoint and fugue with Franck). Guillaume Lekeu died tragically at the age of 24 after contracting typhoid fever.

Rounding out the recording is Lili Boulanger’s brief but extraordinary Nocturne for Violin and Piano, written in 1911. Hazy and impressionistic, the music ends with a passing quote of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faune. Lili was the younger sister of the influential composition teacher Nadia Boulanger.

Listen to the full recording here.

The Elegant Artistry of Arthur Grumiaux

legendary violinist Arthur Grumiaux
legendary violinist Arthur Grumiaux

Elegance, good taste and a beautiful, bell-like singing tone were all characteristics of Franco-Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux (1921-1986). In contrast to today’s relatively homogenized violin playing, Grumiaux exhibits a distinctly French style. Listening to Grumiaux, I’m also struck by the musical honesty and lack of fussiness in his playing. His musical phrases speak with a purity and simplicity which is hard to come by today.

In his book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz wrote:

[quote]Over the years, Grumiaux’s playing underwent a marked development. He began as an intellectually cool player, with a tone of limited volume and restrained vibrato. As he grew in years and maturity, his interpretations acquired more sensuous warmth and fire without losing any of the former noble qualities. Perhaps it is the nobility and uncompromising musicianship that keeps Grumiaux’s career within certain limits, as if marked “for connoisseurs only.”[/quote]

Let’s become “connoisseurs” and listen to a few great old recordings by Grumiaux:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3[/typography]

It’s hard to imagine better Mozart than this:

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Here are the second and third movements.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Faure and Franck Sonatas[/typography]

Here is a clip of Gabriel Fauré’s two violin sonatas (A major and E minor) as well as the César Franck sonata (beginning at 44:45):

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Beethoven Minuet in G[/typography]

Beethoven’s Minuet in G is included in Book 2 of Suzuki’s violin repertoire. I was surprised to come across this performance by Grumiaux:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sicilienne[/typography]

This short piece has been attributed to Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), an Austrian composer and pianist. Mozart is thought to have written his Piano Concerto No. 18 for her. Violinist Samuel Dushkin, who “discovered” and arranged this beautiful piece, is now believed to have written it:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Paganini’s I Palpiti[/typography]

Let’s finish up with the virtuoso fireworks of Niccolò Paganini. Before the fireworks start, you’ll hear a singing melody, which might remind you of Italian Bel canto opera: