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Percy WHITLOCK (1903-1946)
Organ Sonata in C minor [44'37]
Five Short Pieces [14'24]
Fantasie Choral No 1 in D flat major [12'24]
John Scott, organ
Rec: St Paul's Cathedral, London, 6-8 January 2004. DDD
HYPERION CDA67470 [71'50]

 

 

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.

Chris Bragg    

 

 



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