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A bit repetitive? Yes. Overplayed? Very much so. Irresistible? Absolutely!
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, my mom took me to a faculty recital at Longwood College in Virginia where I grew up -- I think I was 7 or 8 -- and the opening piece was this work. It was the first organ work I had ever heard. We all have those moments we remember from childhood as if they happened a few hours ago, and I remember, with absolute clarity, turning to her as the final F major chord died away and saying: I liked that!
Widor's Toccata stands alongside Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d as one of the most famous organ works ever written, and one of the very few to become part of the general classical repertoire. Many organ works (including many of Widor's) surpass the Toccata in musical stature, but few match its exuberance and sunny appeal. It charges out of the gate in 4/2 meter, with a stream of staccato semiquavers in the right hand. These rapid notes are simple arpeggios, with the chords they outline stamped in the left hand. Widor lets the harmony wander just a bit, but works it inexorably back to the tonic and the brilliant pedal entrance on the high F. At this point, we have the spectacle of both hands and feet playing essentially the same thing, over and over:
There you have it: Romantic minimalism. If Steve Reich had lived in 1887, this is what he might have come up with. The work develops in a simple A-B-A-Coda structure. It never strays from the rhythmic and harmonic outline stated in the first bar, though in the quiet central section, Widor adds interest by swooping the arpeggios back and forth between the hands. After a double pedal recapitulation, the work ends with an extended coda featuring chains of gorgeous suspensions punctuated by joyful pedal declamations, almost as if the composer, caught up in the beauty of the music, couldn't resist underpinning it with a "Ta-DAAA!" or two.
Widor achieves 21 consecutive F's in the pedal here; this relentless adherence to the F major tonality is perhaps a nod to Bach, whose own Toccata in F begins with a 54-bar pedal point on the tonic. It concludes on a thunderous plagal cadence, by which time we are indeed ready to say: "A-men"!
As one of the supreme showpieces of the repertoire, this work is often performed at breakneck speed. Widor wanted it played at a moderate pace, and even revised the metronome indication from 118 to 100 beats per minute in a later edition of the score. I've taken it here at about 104. Any performance faster than about 5'30" prevents a full appreciation of the sumptuous harmonies, yet it is common to hear seasoned players finish it in well under five minutes. Budding virtuosi who wish to demonstrate their technical skills should realize that this piece is easier to play than it sounds. Hitting the right notes is not so much the issue as maintaining the sempre staccato Widor notes in the score, as well as choosing an appropriate registration.
Regarding registration, Widor writes triple forte (fff) at the outset, which typically means full organ. However, I have never liked a heavy 16 foot sound in the manuals, as I think it muddies the harmonies too much. The manual parts are written in a high register, and I prefer to leave them with a brilliant 8/4/2/mixture/reed sound, while letting the sonorous 16 foot principals and reeds sing forth in the pedal. This is reflected in the high, clear manuals of this recording, with delay applied during mastering to reflect the cathedral-like ambience the work deserves. It's easy to overdo reverb, but I sort of let it hang out here. Where better to hear this work than in some huge space, with Widor's massive chords ricocheting all around one?
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