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Henry Fogel
Fanfare, November 2010

One of the great pleasures of reviewing recordings for Fanfare is the occasional discovery that one would have been unlikely to make on one’s own. This disc is a perfect example. The name Charles-Marie Widor is inextricably bound up with the organ, and I had no idea he wrote in any other forms. Although I am certain some Fanfare reader will fill me in on something I’ve missed, I am not aware of any prior recording of his songs. I admit to putting the disc on with low expectations (probably not helped by the fact that the organ is not my favorite instrument). After a half dozen hearings, the disc has made it to this year’s Want List.

Widor (1844–1937—Naxos gets those dates right on the jewelbox insert, but erroneously states “1843–1937” on the booklet) was one of the great organists of the 19th century, and one of the most important composers for that instrument after Bach. It turns out that he composed more than 100 songs, as well as operas, orchestral works, and chamber music. This is my first encounter with anything other than his organ music, and based on this experience I intend to seek out more.

These songs are early examples of the French mélodie, a (mostly) gentle type of art song perhaps first explored by Berlioz and then Gounod. Widor was somewhat of a pioneer in this area, coming ahead of Fauré, Debussy, Duparc, Ravel, Hahn, and Poulenc. Widor was a contemporary of Massenet (1842–1912), another composer of first-class melodies.

The level of inventiveness, imagination, and sheer inspiration here is staggering. The major work is a cycle of 14 songs, Chansons de mer. If you think these will all be gently flowing pieces reflecting calm waters, think again. “Les Nuages” turns very dark and dramatic, with lines like “The waves sing their funereal songs. / Lisen to them! But in spring the snow in tears / Streams down the hills, / As if from open wounds / Streams the blood of anguish.” The music is urgent, dramatic, and memorable. Immediately before that, an intimate, tender, wistful and beautiful song, “Seul dans la nuit” (Alone in the Night). The emotional range of the cycle is huge, the melodic inspiration extraordinary. The individual songs that complete the disc are no less impressive. Tristesse infinite is particularly powerful.

The performances are deeply felt and extremely communicative. Michael Bundy and Jeremy Filsell are clearly not just reading through the music in order to notch a recording of previously unrecorded music. They believe in these pieces, they know them well, they shape them beautifully. Bundy’s singing lacks the vocal richness of the finest baritones (I would love to have heard Gerard Souzay or José van Dam perform these songs). Some of the singing is a bit blustery, and some high notes like the G near the end of the last song do not come easy. But as I have said before in these pages, the most difficult thing to describe is a performance that is good but not great. The proof of the quality of these performances is that after a half-dozen hearings of this disc, I am still enjoying it and finding new pleasures each time.

The recorded sound favors the singer a bit more than is ideal, but it too is basically fine. As is traditional with Naxos, no texts are provided with the disc, but you can download them from their Web site. Of course you then wind up with six pages of paper too large to file conveniently with the disc, but the texts are essential for appreciating this music and one is grateful that they are provided at all. The notes that do come with the disc are excellent. 

Henry Fogel
Fanfare, November 2010

…a major discovery in the form of songs by the French organ virtuoso Charles-Marie Widor. These are important mélodies, filled with drama, imagination and inspiration.

John Boyer
American Record Guide, November 2010

Charles-Marie Widor’s reputation rests firmly on his many bravura symphonies for organ, yet this great representative of the French organ school wrote many other things, including several very fine chamber works. Less popular, though, are his works for voice and piano. Indeed, we seem to have encountered such a set only once before (July/Aug 1991).

The present recording is devoted primarily to the composer’s 1902 cycle Chansons de Mer, 14 settings of poems by Paul Bourget. Widor as song composer shows himself every bit as accomplished as when composing for the organ. His songs are elegant, sophisticated, and unmistakably French in mood and tone. Admirers of Duparc and Fauré will find much of interest here.

Baritone Michael Bundy turns in a pleasing, accomplished performance that in no way discourages one from re-visiting the album or seeking him out in other recordings. He is well supported by his accompanist, Jeremy Filsell, and by the engineers, who supply natural perspective and dynamics.

As with most recent Naxos releases, texts are not included. Mr Bundy himself offers the informative notes.

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, November 2010

Widor is renowned for his organ music and some people know his Conte d’Avril and the symphonies. But he wrote copiously in almost all forms, including opera, although melodies would probably be the last area one would associate with him. Yet, there are almost one hundred songs in his output, of which we have an extended cycle and five individual songs on this disc.

Both the strength and weakness of Widor’s songs lies in their attention to structure. In Chansons de Mer the overall tonal layout makes for a very interesting group, far more interesting than a random gathering. On the other hand, the same attention to detail within an individual song gets in the way of the underlying emotion. The end result is mixed in terms of interest

The fourteen Chansons de Mer are structurally built around four of the songs: the first, La mer, the fifth, La petite coulevre bleu, the tenth, Les Nuages and the last, Repos éternel. In the first the vastness of the sea is evoked as a counterpart to the vastness of human emotions. The result is rather muted, although there are some individual gems in the Chansons. Petite coulevre is perhaps the best of all the songs, telling a tale of betrayal and disappointment. In Les Nuages, which is one of the most dramatic of all the songs, there is not much about the sea. Instead the East is evoked as a place to flee life’s troubles. The last song tells of the narrator’s wishes for his tomb and for how his friends should feel at his last moments. This sums up the cycle well poetically and Widor rises to the occasion musically with a quote from his Suite Latine.

The other five songs on the disc mostly come from later in Widor’s output than the Chansons de Mer and tend to be longer and slightly less lyrical. La nuit is quite profound and the change in mood from ladies on the grass to the dead who can love no more is well done. Tristesse infinie is full of nostalgia, while Nuit mystérieuse is reminiscent of Duparc, although not quite in his league. Dormez, Mèlité is the most expressive of the five, while Oublieras-tu que d’heures douce is a slight disappointment.

I was well acquainted with Jeremy Filsell as an organist, but not nearly as well as a pianist. In his role of accompanist he is extremely subtle, which is just what these works both as poems and songs require. Michael Bundy is blessed with just the right type of voice for this repertoire and a great ability to shape a song. His one fault is that he sometime fails to differentiate sufficiently in style between one song and another, although some might lay that at the feet of the composer. The recording quality is quite notable—the sound at St George’s School adds to the overall effect, although the same cannot be said for Dulwich Hall. Overall, this is a somewhat uneven production, but one in which the rarity of the repertoire overrides other concerns.

Alan Swanson
Fanfare, November 2010

Though Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937) wrote extensively in all musical genres, he is almost exclusively known today for his organ works. Indeed, outside of organists, he is almost entirely known for the last movement of his fifth organ symphony, of whose toccata there are at least 83 available recordings. This is a situation Michael Bundy would like to change.

Widor was an important figure in fin-de-siècle French, well, Parisian, musical life, though he remained for 64 years only the extra organist at St. Sulpice. In his fine notes to the recording, Bundy sees the Lyonnais Widor as the perpetual outsider, whose first song cycle, Soirs d’été (1889), he claims to be the first after Berlioz’s Nuits d’été of 1841. Chansons de mer comes from 1902, by which time much water had washed the musical beach, not least mélodies by Fauré and Debussy. It does not matter that the songs here could not be by those masters; this is a cycle worth knowing, not least as a good example of the extraordinary French interest in song at the time.

As in his first cycle, Widor used words by Paul Bourget, his cousin, and, while they are absoluely clear in Bundy’s rather good French, Naxos does not provide them in the insert. They must be downloaded from the Naxos Web site. Though it is not at all clear to me why these songs are particularly of “the sea,” as a musical experience the cycle gets better as it goes on, reaching an exciting point with “Seul dans la nuit” and “Les Nuages,” just after the middle, stretching to the final “Repos éternel.” My only reservation about the performance is the first song, which I wish had been rerecorded to allow Bundy to clean up some awkward leaps, which he shows later on he can easily manage. If I have a sense that Bundy and pianist Jeremy Filsell take a while to get into the cycle, they do, nonetheless, get into it.

The following five songs, four of them later than the present cycle, each have their own interest, not least in showing how Widor stayed close to his established style. Bundy rightly claims, I think, that “Dormez, Mèlité” is one of Widor’s best mélodies, and he sings it with great feeling. In all, Bundy and Filsell make a good case for Widor’s songs.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2010

The name of Charles-Marie Widor now resides almost entirely in his organ music, and more specifically in his organ symphonies, the famous Toccata beloved by newly married brides. He was also largely responsible for the modern French organ tradition, though thought of himself as a composer in a wide field of music from opera through to almost a hundred songs. He was active through to the 1970’s, though his music belonged to the Romantic era of the late 19th century. Using the sea to view life’s ebb and flow in the Chansons de mer, the mood constantly changing, love and death playing an important role. There are fourteen in total and have their roots in Berlioz, though we also hear a great deal of Fauré, and something of his contemporary, Duparc. He was not a miniaturist by instinct, but his songs all hover around three minutes, the remaining five tracks given to separate songs including the late and unpublished, Dormez, Melite and Oublieras-tu que d’heures douces. The soloist is Michael Bundy, a familiar face in the UK vocal group, The Sixteen. I am not sure how the French will react to his pronunciation, but he is obviously enjoying the music, while his pianist partner, Jeremy Filsell—rather better known as an organist—makes the most of accompaniments that are at times thin in texture. The recording started out in 2003 and was completed five years ago. One of the usual Naxos recording teams would offer a better piano sound, but the voice is well captured.

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