Notes and Editorial Reviews
Intrada. In Memoriam Maurice Duruflé. Toccata di dissonanze. Aubade. Trilogy on Stanzas of Shakepeare’s Sonnets. Scherzetto and Fugue on the Name Francis Jackson. 5 Sisters Windows.
John Scott Whiteley (org)
REGENT 353 (76:03)
John Scott Whiteley (b. 1950) is one of England’s most distinguished organists. He served as organist of York Minster from 1976 until 2010 and has concertized extensively throughout the world. His many superb recordings have
been widely acclaimed, particularly a recent television series on the works of J. S. Bach, recorded on various historical organs. Parallel to this career as a major concert organist, Whiteley has composed a small body of organ and choral works. His compositional life began in earnest in the 1980s, and he has continued to produce more or less one major piece each year up to the present. I imagine that more compositions may appear in the future now that he has retired from his duties at York Minster. Though several choral works have previously appeared on CD, this is the first recording devoted entirely to Whiteley’s music and contains about 75 percent of his music for the organ.
As is described in the booklet essay, Whiteley’s musical idiom draws on British and French influence in nearly equal parts. The music is, unsurprisingly, very well written for the organ, and like Messiaen, Whiteley has managed to create a language that allows for tonal, modal, and atonal elements to coexist harmoniously. The most striking aspect of Whiteley’s organ style, however, is its remarkably creative approach to timbre. A large symphonic organ obviously gives great potential for colorful registration, and Whiteley seems to relish in taking this to new extremes—combining sounds that range from the conventional to the exceptionally unorthodox. The suite
Five Sisters Windows
contains some particularly unusual timbral play, especially an opening movement that focuses on the highest organ stops used quite differently from their normal manner. Despite how experimental this description of timbre makes the music sound, I should stress that (unlike many organ pieces by continental European composers of the mid 20th century) there is nothing at all inaccessible about this music.
The most compelling piece on the disc is the Passacaglia that concludes the album. This is a superb piece with a deeply satisfying trajectory and deserves to be played by many organists. It is also less unorthodox in some of the registration and timbral demands, so likely will translate the easiest for use by other players in recital contexts. Also notable is the unusual suite on Shakespeare sonnets, which combines three brief musical responses to the texts with musical quotations from three folk/hymn tunes and allusions to several musical styles (including a Bach parody in the opening movement).
Regent has produced many fine organ recordings, and the splendid and famous instrument at York Minster is recorded beautifully. Whiteley has played this instrument practically every day for 35 years, so to say he knows it well would be quite an understatement. The booklet notes by the composer are unbelievably detailed—to an almost ridiculous degree. Reading and digesting the notes on the Passacaglia (which include detailed annotations about where and how each variation was composed) take nearly as long as listening to the 11-minute piece. I suggest scanning them quickly and then just listening. The appeal of Whiteley’s music is in its sound, and there is much to reward the listener here.
FANFARE: Carson Cooman
Works on This Recording
Intrada by John Scott Whiteley
John Scott Whiteley (Organ)
Passacaglia by John Scott Whiteley
John Scott Whiteley (Organ)
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