Charles-Marie Widor Piano Quintet 1, New Budapest Quartet with Ilona Prunyi

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Charles-Marie Widor Piano Quintet No. 1 (1890)
New Budapest Quartet with Ilona Prunyi

English: French organist and composer Charles-...
English: French organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those who knew him characterized Charles-Marie Widor as a man of captivating personality. Behind a facade of natural reserve, he was both witty and warm-hearted, energetic yet spiritual. He took a lively interest in literature and in all the arts, and he was a well-informed and entertaining companion. The musicians with whom he was personally acquainted spanned the generations from Rossini to Milhaud. Among his closest colleagues he counted Gounod, Delibes, Massenet and Saint-Saëns. As a teacher he was both exacting and dedicated, and his efforts proved of enormous importance: among the organists he trained one can cite Charles Tournemire, Marcel Dupré and Albert Schweitzer; among his composition students the names Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud stand out. As a composer he cultivated those values that have long been prized in France and associated with French art of all kinds: logic, clarity, moderation and balance. In sophistication and consummate mastery, his music can best be compared to that of Saint-Saëns. In 1914 Widor was appointed permanent secretary of the Académie des Beaux Arts, one of the highest honors that can be accorded a French musician.

Though overlooked today, Widor's contribution to chamber music is a considerable one. The chamber works include two piano quintets, a piano quartet, a piano trio, two violin sonatas, a cello sonata, Soirs d'Alsace for piano trio, and several suites and smaller pieces for various instrumental combinations.

In the chamber music Widor displays a melodic elegance that is characteristically French. There is often an appealing delicacy of texture and color, though a sense of vigor infuses much of the music, and in the passages of power, there emerges a fullness of sonority that is decidedly romantic. Since Widor became one of France's greatest organists, it is not at all surprising that his keyboard writing shows considerable virtuosity and that his harmonies are rich and full.

The 1980 edition of Grove shows the Quintet in D Minor as composed in 1890. That rather equivocal date would place it among the earliest of Widor's chamber works, contemporaneous with Franck's string quartet and Chausson's Concert. Dedicated to Charles Gounod, it calls for the customary forces of piano, two violins, viola and cello, and it follows the established four-movement pattern. Owing to the complexity and brilliance of the piano part, which is richly arpeggiated and harmonically luxuriant, the strings often playa supporting role: their writing is more of the "orchestral" than the "conversational" kind more characteristic of chamber music's intimate expression.

The opening Allegro has a martial quality. The wide-ranging dynamics, meticulously indicated in the score, heighten the coloristic and dramatic mood. The Andante's outstanding feature is its melodic elegance; here an interplay of the instruments creates a greater feeling of intimacy. The tonality shifts to the bright key of A major in the spirited scherzo, Molto vivace. Much of this movement is played pianissimo, and the alternately plucked and bowed strings produce an effect of rapid delicacy. The finale, Allegro con moto, begins with a vigorous theme, announced in unison. The second theme appears on the cello, accompanied by arpeggio figures on the piano. After skilful polyphonic development -- here one may recall Widor's training in the Bach tradition -- the quintet comes to a solid, resounding conclusion.