Sunday, September 2, 2007

Widor at Woolsey Hall

Charles-Marie Widor: Organ Symphonies
Charles Krigbaum, organ (1928, Ernest M. Skinner, Woolsey Hall, Yale University)
AFKA Records, SK-523, SK-524

  • Symphony No. 5 in f minor
  • Symphony Gothique in C Major
  • Symphony 6 in g minor
  • Symphony Romane in D Major

Here we have two of the four available volumes of a cycle of Widor organ symphonies recorded by Charles Krigbaum in the mid 80s in Yale University's Woolsey Hall. Krigbaum was University Organist for years and head of the Organ Department at Yale (a position now held by Thomas Murray), and is apparently now retired--there is virtually no information to be found about him on the web.

I first came across Krigbaum on a really splendid two-disc release on OHS called An Evening at Woolsey Hall, recorded on Woolsey's fantastic Skinner organ. The Widor Symphony on that release (well, the whole release actually) convinced me that I should give these other recordings a listen. It sounds as though Krigbaum originally recorded the whole Widor symphony cycle, but the AFKA releases currently encompass only Nos. 1-6, 9 and 10. There must be another disc with 7 and 8 on it, but it's not currently in the OHS catalog (and there seems to be no such entity as AFKA records).

Widor was organist at St. Sulpice in Paris from 1870-1934, and is mostly remembered today for these ten organ symphonies. Like many of the great French organ composers, these pieces were written for the sounds of Cavaillé-Coll's instruments, particularly his greatest and most famous instrument at St. Sulpice. Though perhaps without Vierne's spark of genius, Widor's symphonies are atmospheric and adept at making the organ speak into a cavernous space. Widor played an essential part in this great musical flowering which occurred in Paris from Cesar Franck onward. As professor of both organ and composition at the Paris Conservatoire, Widor was teacher to many who followed in his footsteps and became luminaries in their own right: Charles Tournemire, Marcel Dupré, Louis Vierne, Maurice Duruflé, Edgar Varése, Darius Milhaud, among many others. To my ear, these ten symphonies, written over almost 30 years, do not show any particular musical progression, though the last two (the "Gothique" and "Romane") are thought to be more introspective and to have an element of plainchant in their thematic material. Rather, they are beautiful and skillfully wrought, and they place some demands on the organist, and they show off an instrument's tonal palette.

Krigbaum understands these works, and he has the right instrument for the job. His tempos are rather stately, which is an aesthetic choice that resonates with me. The Toccata of Widor's Fifth Symphony is one of the most recognized organ works in the entire repertoire--right alongside Bach's BWV 565 d minor Toccata and Fugue--and it's a great means of demonstrating an instrument's (and performer's) mettle. Likewise the Finale to the Sixth: one can imagine Widor at the console, surrounded by admirers (whom he selectively and regally allowed up to the organ loft to witness his performance), thundering out these splendid sounds into the gigantic stone interior of St. Sulpice.

This organ is, to my ear, a real national treasure. The acoustic, while not quite St. Sulpice in scope, is really well suited to organ music, and the organ boasts an almost surreal tonal and dynamic range. The individual voices of this organ are often really compelling, and the tutti rather takes one's breath away. Skinner's pedal flues in particular sound like each one requires its own blower, so full and round is their sound. The big pedal reeds seem necessary only for the fullest textures, and everything at once threatens to boil the bone marrow of anyone within earshot. Martin Jean (another current Yale faculty member) has a cycle of Vierne Symphonies out on this instrument, and the more I hear of the organ the more impressed I am with it. I'll review that disc shortly.


Anonymous said...

I studied with Mr. Krigbaum in early 1970s. A good musician, and quite wonderful person to know.
Alas, too poor to be purchasing CDs right now, as I would love to hear them eventually. I played 2 concerts on that Skinner while I was at Yale. There is truly nothing like it in the entire United States. Room, organ, everything about it. Superlatives would be superfluous!
David Dunkle

wunelle said...

Thanks for the reminiscences. With your comments and that of Joseph Dzeda, it's fabulous to hear from those who know the instrument intimately. I'd love to hear a concert live on it.

I do travel quite a bit, so I'll try to make an effort to get to Yale when I'm nearby.