Reviews ...

... on the production
—  The Great Organ Works

Sonata in C Minor, Two Fantasie Chorals
Christoph Keller (organ)

  Percy Whitlock: The Great Organ Works

Here are lost treasures rediscovered. Whitlock (1903–1946) was a major talent among conservative British organist-composers of the early 20th century, working in a late Romantic idiom. This recording presents three large-scale works: two Fantasie Chorales, possibly inspired by the Franck Chorals, and the mammoth Sonata in C Minor, inspired by Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. The Sonata, regarded as among the finest in the literature, is astonishing in its proportion, dramatic impact, and resplendence of invention. Whitlock’s music is typically whimsical, rhapsodic, melodic, harmonically rich, and dramatic. Its successful interpretation requires a particular understanding and virtuosic technique. Christoph Keller performs with deep empathy and meets every challenge. The Klais, with its wealth of color and power, is particularly suited to music of this kind.
Organists' Review (May 2004)
  Whitlock in full measure at Altenberg

British romantic composers were traditionally popular in Germany  —  think of Elgar, for example, many of whose great works found their finest early performances in that land. Whitlock also has a growing following there, one which will be boosted by this fine recording. Keller, now a freelance organist with an interest in unusual repertoire, is a prizewinning pupil of Prof André Luy and Daniel Roth.

Hard on the heels of the highly romantic recording of the Sonata by Wolfgang Rübsam on a large Skinner (see our August 2003 edition for a review  —  it was Editor's Choice) it is interesting to hear how Christoph Keller takes a more subtle approach. Rather than emphasise the orchestral / Rachmaninovian influences as Rübsam does so spectacularly, he finds and projects Whitlock the poet, 'the quiet man' within the music. This 'poetic' approach leads to no weakening of the strong structures, heroic passages, and driving rhythms which propel much of this music along  —  far from it  —  but it does illuminate the subtle melodic curve, the gently relaxed cadence, the reflective reserve, as well as the understated mischievousness of movements such as the Scherzetto. Keller succeeds more accurately than some in achieving the composer's generally careful metronome markings. The opening of the Sonata is a good example of this: many players play the opening bar (and where it returns) at a much slower pace than the contrasting passage which follows it. By adopting the same pulse for both (as marked) they relate to one another much more convincingly. Having found the right pace he is unafraid of 'bending' it, but all is done with subtlety and musical restraint  —  Percy would surely have approved.

The giant 1980 Klais at Altenberg with its two large enclosed departments does its best to accommodate Whitlock, and manages it pretty well, despite being rather out of tune  —  no doubt owing to its great height and many levels. Principals, flutes and strings are used to fine and musical effect. The chamades substitute effectively for PW's beloved Tuba; however the very loud and inexpressive Rückpositiv Cromorne sounds quite wrong when an enclosed Clarinet is specified. The Dom is still half full of scaffolding for a ten year restoration, so the cavernous (11/12 second) echo is reduced to a pleasant 5/6 seconds!

There is much to enjoy here  —  not least Christoph Keller's perceptive and convincing performance of the two Fantasie Chorals. Perhaps not one's reference version, but certainly a refreshing and deeply musical alternative.
Paul Hale
Musik und Kirche (March/April 2004)
On the occasion of the composer's 100th birthday, two recordings with Whitlock's major works for organ were published in Germany: the dramatic and gloomy Sonata in C Minor. In addition to this, two remarkable Fantasie Chorals were recorded at the organ of the Altenberg Cathedral near Cologne, Germany, the organist is Christoph Keller. Despite their apparent dissimilarity, these two Chorals are noteworthy by all means. The total playing time of this CD is 79 minutes, i. e. the CD is full to the brim. However, this is not the only reason why it is worth buying. Compared directly with the recording by Wolfgang Rübsam at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel Organ in Chicago (cf. MuK 4/2003, p. 268) offering a rich and authentic sound picture, Keller outperforms through convincing, touching and dramatic organ playing at the highest musical and technical level. Unlike Keller, Rübsam appears to be clarified, considerably introverted, emphasizing the melancholic aspects of the music. The organ pipes of the Klais-Organ respond quickly, almost "spit". Surprisingly, this is no disadvantage to the performance, but increases its presence. Keller loses only in the parts where the tuba needs to be involved. Then, the organ does not sound majestic, but more like rattle.
Gabriel Dessauer

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