As Organist of England's significant and historic York Minster, John Scott Whiteley is not only accomplished but also obviously knowledgeable in the organ literature's war-horses. To prove this, he cooked up a mighty feast on November 16 at First Presbyterian Church that would make the iron chefs sweat: the main courses were Julius Reubke's massive and lengthy Sonata on the 94th Psalm and Joseph Jongen's equally massive but less lengthy Sonata Eroica. Johann Sebastian Bach's beloved Fantasia and Fugue in G minor (S.542) began the program as a familiar entrée, and the first movement of Charles-Marie Widor's Fifth Organ Symphony was offered as what I'll call a cheese course (though not intended as commentary on the music!). For dessert, Whitely served one of his own creations: a reconstitution of an improvisation by the legendary Notre-Dame Cathedral (Paris) organist Pierre Cochereau. Assorted salads and sorbets by Francisco de Peraza I, Émile Bernard, and Claude Debussy rounded out the meal.
Not to overuse the food metaphor, I have to admit having come away stuffed in a sense, all too aware of that warning about "too much of a good thing." Remember I said that Whiteley is accomplished; that is, he has more than proven himself as a concert organist, and his appointment at York more than adequately confirms this. My reservations are therefore not intended to dispute his recognition and distinctions. In fact, I kept thinking throughout the recital how much I would prefer to hear him perform at York - in his own gourmet kitchen, so to speak - rather than attempt to transfer his artistry to a strange North American instrument. Ah, such is the plight of concert organists.
Still, I could not help but wonder what kept me from being utterly enraptured by Whiteley's performance? Perhaps I sensed unease in his "management" of the console? Could be that Whiteley wasn't inspired by the modest audience? Was he shortchanged of preparation time? These are all possibilities, but I suspect the real reason was that the program was about one or two pieces too much, even for the chef himself. Either Reubke's or Jongen's masterpiece would have been rich enough. Neither piece really took off or settled down in truly artistic fashion. The Reubke, in particular, didn't have that certain flow inherent in extemporaneous music-making à la Liszt. Places that should have been a virtual whirlwind of energy were barely a gust. Whiteley's crescendi and decrescendi were problematic (at times annoying) in that the sonorities didn't grow out of or disappear into each other naturally. The programmable crescendo device presumably available on this organ, though a crutch of sorts, might have enabled the performer to orchestrate the music more "organically."
Joseph Jongen's Sonata fared slightly better, perhaps because of Whiteley's personal investment in the Belgian composer and his music. Structured as an introduction, theme-and-variations, development, fugue, and finale, this work was a nearly perfect fit for the organ's chambered sonorities. Whiteley's use of heavy 16-foot manual stops worked better here than it did elsewhere during the concert, when it obliterated the polyphony.
Whiteley explained that he had decided to give the US premiere of Cochereau's transcribed improvisation, given the Létourneau organ's vast resources and power. True, the organ is big and powerful, but I also know what such improvisations sound like at the grand organ at Paris's Notre-Dame. Most every registration on that organ makes the hair on your neck stand up, largely because of its lofty placement, encased design, and direct tonal egress into the nave. The only way to achieve this effect in the audience area at First Presbyterian is to throw on the horizontal trumpet from start to finish - not a very musical effect. While Whiteley was undoubtedly drenched in fiery sonority at the console, audience members were bathed in a more amorphous wash of sound. Cochereau's repeated eighth notes, in particular, undoubtedly sizzled at Notre-Dame but fizzled at First Presbyterian. Nevertheless, Whiteley's tenacity at transcribing and performing this complex improvisation is nothing short of admirable.
As for the intermediary courses, I could have dispensed with the Peraza, but not because of the music. Instead of using a gentler registration more reminiscent of early Iberian organs, Whiteley used the gallery organ's Trompette-en-chamade accompanied by the chancel organ's heavy 16- and 8-foot foundation stops. The resulting trumpet blasts with lugubrious accompaniment stood poorly next to the other, equally-heavy program selections, all in minor keys save for the Debussy. In contrast, Gaston Choisnel's transcription of Debussy's La demoiselle élue was sensitively played in every respect and featured the organ's imitative and ethereal stops to good advantage. The delightful and capricious Scherzo-Caprice of Bernard was likewise well registered and performed, demonstrating Whiteley's expert sense of timing with the deftness of a seasoned comedian. Were that we were treated to more gems like this!
I believe this recital sans Reubke and Peraza would have been extremely satisfying, not to mention impressive and probably better prepared. As an organist, I gleaned much from this overly-ambitious feast. When it concluded around 7 p.m., nearly two hours after the scheduled start of the recital, I was thinking of... well, food. I will be anxious to hear John Scott Whiteley work his magic across the pond at York or other concert venues that he frequently haunts. Meanwhile, First Presbyterian might select from its roster of distinguished organists the performers who value quality over quantity. *Burp!*