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RESTORED TO GLORY
BIRMINGHAM TOWN HALL

George Frideric HANDEL
(1685-1759) transc. Marcel Dupré/Thomas Trotter

Organ Concerto No 16 in F [10:07]
Sir George THALBEN-BALL (1896-1987)

Variations on a theme by Paganini for pedals [7:34]
Elegy [4:49]
W.T. BEST (1826-1897)

Concert Fantasia on a Welsh March (Men of Harlech) [11:06]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)

Villanella [3:56]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875) transc. Lemare

Carmen Suite [11:31]
Edwin LEMARE (1865-1934)

Andantino in D flat major [4:05]
Rondo Capriccio (A Study in Accents) [3:36]
Concertstück (Concert Piece in the form of a Polonaise) [7:21]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) transc. Lemare

Rienzi Overture [11:48]
Thomas Trotter (organ)
Rec. Birmingham Town Hall, 28-29 July 2007. DDD
REGENT REGCD265 [75:44]


 

Birmingham Town Hall has recently been reopened following a ten year programme of restoration and refurbishment. The organ has also been overhauled and some small changes have been made, mostly of a cosmetic nature. This recording has been released to mark the re-inauguration of both hall and organ.

Unfortunately, although I enjoyed the recording immensely I have a major gripe with this release. It concerns, primarily, the way in which the organ is documented in the booklet.

The organ of Birmingham Town Hall was originally built by William Hill in 1834. It was the largest in England, and featured (still does) a 32’ façade. In its first fifteen years of existence it was improved several times by the original builder, featured in the first performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and had become the first organ in the world to have a high-pressure solo reed. However the character of today’s organ has much to do with the subsequent rebuilds by Thomas Hill, Henry Willis III and N.P. Mander. However, of these subsequent rebuilds no detail is given, and the booklet is quite happy to refer to the instrument as an "historic 1834 organ". This "sweeping under the carpet" of an essential part of the organ’s history is misleading at best. The specification is listed without any reference to the sources of each of the stops. In fact, according to the National Pipe Organ Register, only 29 of the organ’s 91 stops (including percussions) are from Hill. Although I don’t know the organ personally one would assume, given Willis III’s usual way of working, that his rebuild was the most significant in determining the organ’s present character, even if the Mander rebuild of 1984 was supposedly inspired by the organ’s situation in the 1880s. Please, Regent, look at the fabulous CD booklets of Joe Vitacco’s JAV Records and use them as models for future releases so that I don’t have to trawl the internet to find out what my ears are really hearing.

This ‘fuzzy’ thinking, dare I suggest, extends, albeit briefly, into Thomas Trotter’s programme. What is the point of the Handel concerto? Trotter seems to have taken Dupré’s transcription, and shorn it of everything characteristic of Dupré. Instead the performance follows what would now be considered ‘Handelian’ (or at least 18th century) norms. The Mander neo-baroquery features heavily. It is astonishing that as late as 1984 a British builder would append a ‘Bombarde’ with a synoptic specification of 8, 4, 2,2/3, 2 1,3/5, 1,1/3 (all flutes) V-VI plus reeds to a Town Hall organ! Surely sticking to Dupré’s intentions would have been more appropriate in the circumstances? When do you ever hear Handel played like that now? And where better than on an organ such as that in Birmingham?

Now the good stuff and there’s plenty of it. Thomas Trotter is the worthy successor of G.D. Cunningham and George Thalben-Ball and his playing is never less than excellent, either live or on CD. His concept here, honouring famous civic organists of the past - is very strong. He can be counted in the company of Best in Liverpool, Thalben-Ball in Birmingham and Lemare in Chattanooga both as composers and arrangers. I especially enjoyed the pair of original pieces by Lemare and of course the Wagner transcription, which is brilliantly played; Trotter revels in the combination of organ and music which here seems just right. The Thalben-Ball variations are famously difficult, and Trotter’s mastery of them is unequivocal. Ireland’s Villanella is also deliciously appropriate. Perhaps only the Carmen Suite is too much of a good thing.

Despite my misgivings, this is essential listening due in no small part to the brilliance of Thomas Trotter, an artist continuing a rare civic tradition at the highest possible artistic level. Hats off to him.

Chris Bragg




 


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