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.

Remembering Lydia Mordkovitch

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Lydia Mordkovitch (1944-2014)

Russian-born violinist Lydia Mordkovitch passed away earlier in the week. She was a student of David Oistrakh and served as his assistant in the late 1960s. In this interview she talks about her Russian musical roots and the influence of Oistrakh’s teaching.

Mordkovitch emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1980. In 1995 she joined the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music. Her extensive discography on the Chandos label includes music of English composers (violin concertos of Arnold Bax, William Alwyn and George Dyson) and Max Bruch’s seldom heard Second and Third Violin Concertos.

Listening to a sample of Lydia Mordkovitch’s recordings, I was struck by the soulfulness and honesty of her musicianship. While many contemporary violinists seem to sound alike, her tone was distinctive. The Loure from J.S. Bach’s Third Partita (the second movement in the final clip below) is an example of Mordkovitch’s singing approach to sound and wide array of tonal colors.

Strad Magazine offered the following description in a 2009 review of Mordkovitch’s CD of Russian violin music:

To hear Lydia Mordkovitch at the peak of her interpretative powers is like being thrown back half a century when the likes of David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin held sway…She has never believed in half measures and here every note is played to its maximum expressive potential, whether it is a raging violin fortissimo or a gentle viola pizzicato.

Here is the first movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra:

Olivier Messiaen’s Thème et variations was written in 1932 as a wedding gift for the composer’s first wife, violinist Claire Delbos:

Here is Mordkovitch’s 1987 recording of J.S. Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin No. 3 in E: