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Of total fascination is the performance by Widor at 88 years old of his 'Toccata'. He is seated at the vast, five-manuel Cavaillé-Col organ at S Sulpice in Paris, an instrument he played for 64 years, starting less than a decade after its installation in 1862. The organ can thunder with terrifying intensity, and Widor lets it. The tempo is steady and the rhythm inflexible so that the cumulative effect is overwhelming. The pedals beneath Widor's feet have a volcanic strength, as if deepest sounds are being summoned and compelled from the depths of the earth [listen -- track 17, 0:01-1:26].

Very different are two vocal tracks, each riotously amusing. Chaliapin in a 1936 Song of the Flea recorded two years before his death effortlessly displays the born actor and shows the voice in admirable preservation into his 60s. Musorgsky thought he was the first to set this song of Mephistopheles in the Auerbach cellar; but Beethoven was there before him, having originally sketched the song not long after Goethe published his fragmentary Faust in 1790. Chaliapin's mirth is irresistible [listen -- track 16, 0:15-1:27]. The most recent track on the CD dates from 1967, and displays Victoria de los Angeles and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in hilarious form at the Festival Hall, accompanied by Gerald Moore and gales of laughter. Even as an outrageous sin of his old age, Rossini never perpetrated the Cat's Duet. But he did, however unwittingly, supply much of its music, originally conceived for Othello, Iago and Rodrigo. It was knocked into its yowling shape by G Berthold and is nicely calculated to bring any house down [listen -- track 23, 1:42-2:59].

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Copyright © 24 November 2004 Robert Anderson, London UK


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