John Scott's departure from St Paul's Cathedral for the new challenges of New
York leaves something of a void in British
organ culture; Scott is one of the most talented British players
of his generation. It seems somehow appropriate that he chose
to record, for his last release from St
Paul's, probably the greatest work that
20th century Britain contributed to the organ literature: Percy Whitlock's inspired, idiosyncratic,
wonderful C minor Sonata.
The match, on the face of it, is made in heaven. St Paul's is one of the most dramatic organs
in the UK, the
effect heightened by the situating of the organ in different
locations in the church, and, of course, the famed acoustic.
The result is truly magnificent when allied to Whitlock's music:
the wafting strings, full swell, orchestral reeds ... wow! Whitlock's
sonata, for any readers who don't know it, is an astonishing
four-movement construction, mixing influences of Rachmaninov,
Delius, Elgar and to an extent, Whitlock's own activities in
the field of light music. Forgotten for decades after its composition
in 1936, the world was first championed by Graham Barber, (who
has recorded it twice), and Robert Gower in the late 1970s and
early 1980s. In the last few years an astounding number of recordings
has appeared, the players including Ennis, Martin-Maki, Wolfgang
Rubsam, Fisher, Graham Barber again, Gower and others. I understand
that Ludger Lohmann even performed it on a visit to Westminster
Cathedral, an astonishing undertaking for the great German organist.
The appeal of the piece is obvious: the bittersweet harmonic
language, the strength of the thematic ideas, the sweeping themes,
the cunning 5/8 Scherzetto, the unexpectedly soft ending. It
is just fantastic, and deserves every ounce of exposure it gets.
Scott's performance is rather no-nonsense, typical of his playing in
general. His use of the vast organ is marvellous. Sometimes
I wished that the different themes in the first movement, and
the different sections in the twenty minute Choral which concludes
the work were more strongly characterised, and that Scott would
in general play with a little more space. The Scherzetto on
the other hand is everything it should be: lithe, quick, over
in a flash. The couplings are also strong, a considered reading
of the Five Short Pieces and the expansive first Fantasie Choral.
Although perhaps not my only choice for the Sonata - Roger Fisher's
live recording on Amphion from Lincoln, and also Robert Gower's offering on Abacus from Selby, form strong
competition, for differing reasons. This is thoroughly recommendable.
Whitlock’s magnum opus is a work which in any case deserves
to have more than one interpretation in your collection.