What a good idea, to focus on Britain’s town hall organs rather than the already well-known church and cathedral ones. And who better than Thomas Trotter, appointed Birmingham Town Hall organist in 1983, to start the tour? This organ was built by William Hill in 1834, modified by his son Thomas in 1890 and rebuilt by Henry Willis in 1933 and Manders in 1984. In addition, the refurb of 1996-2007 improved the building’s acoustics, as confirmed by the precision and presence of this DVD and CD. Indeed, Regent have done an excellent job capturing the sound of this great instrument, which augurs well for future releases in this series.
One of the visual challenges is how to film these recitals. There’s no audience and there are no cutaways to architectural details of the hall itself. Rather dull, you might think, but seconds into Hollins’ Concert overture and all doubts vanish. This is a lively piece, superbly shaped and articulated. Trotter’s bright, piping registration suits the work very well, as do the warmer, more plaintive sonorities chosen for Thalben-Ball’s Festing arrangement that follows. The cuckoo-like tune in the latter is as mellifluous as one could wish for, the music played with a deftness and charm that’s impossible to resist.
But for deftness it’s Thalben-Ball’s Variations on a theme of Paganini for pedals that really impresses. Trotter’s flashy footwork is mesmerising – he remains admirably unflustered throughout – the organ’s rolling bass powerfully rendered. That said, it’s not just about heft, as the piece has an astonishing range of rhythm and colour as well. All in all, a high tingle factor here. And there’s another kind of frisson in Ketèlbey’s Bells across the meadows, the gentle chimes floated with restrained loveliness. What a delectable tune this is, and winningly played.
Eric Coates’s sunny Youth of Britain march – bright of eye and ruddy of cheek – is a steam-organ blast of strident trumpets and roistering pedals. It’s one of Trotter’s own transcriptions, and what a tonic it is too. Any caveats so far? None, apart from a bit of skipping during the Coates, which I hope is just a glitch on my review disc. Curiously, Regent’s double-sided DVD has PAL encoding on one face and NTSC on the other. Since most modern players and drives can cope with NTSC – which seems the format of choice on classical DVDs anyway – this seems a strange decision. Perhaps it’s in deference to older viewers, who may have PAL-only players. In any event, you’ll need 20/20 vision to decipher the instructions printed around the disc’s centre.
Meanwhile, those ‘of a certain age’ will surely rejoice in the old-fashioned sounds of a manual typewriter, as heard in Trotter’s witty take on the Leroy Anderson classic. Those carriage returns are an absolute delight, the whole piece despatched with a blend of buoyancy and good humour. Thankfully, that same clarity and lift informs Trotter’s renditions of Lemare’s Wagner transcriptions. The Mastersingers overture can easily become ponderous, yet Trotter’s lucid registration is an invaluable aid to both detail and momentum. Indeed, I can’t remember the pomp and pageantry caught so well, the fanfares especially thrilling.
The Evening Star romance from Tannhäuser calls on the organ’s darker and more resonant resources, Trotter bringing a real sense of ardour to this most familiar tune. As ever, he skirts sentimentality and captures Wagner’s rich-hued soundscape to perfection. Ditto those airborne amazons from The Valkyries, who’ve seldom yodelled with such fearsome reach and power. Trotter keeps them all aloft with playing of remarkable precision and thrust. A demonstration track, if ever I heard one. And that goes for Tchaikovsky’s slow-burning 1812 overture, which Trotter scales and shapes most effectively. As with Lemare in the Wagner, he recreates orchestral colours and timbres with great accuracy and skill; even without the ordnance – I half expected some to emerge from the shadows – this performance has an orchestral breadth and surge that’s always compelling.
Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of so-called ‘bonus tracks’, but I’m delighted to make an exception here. Trotter gives a most illuminating tour of the Birmingham instrument and its various rebuilds, complete with short musical examples. I do like his quiet, self-effacing style, especially when recounting his career. By any yardstick his training was impressive – studying with Dame Gillian Weir and Marie-Claire Alain, not to mention a stint with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and work with London-based choruses. These insights are rounded off with a stop-motion snippet – to Trotter’s rendition of The Typewriter – showing the 2007 refurb. Short, sharp and to the point; others please note.
Regent supply detailed liner-notes – one of Eric Coates’s dates is wrong, though – and the enclosed CD is a worthwhile bonus. After all, one is much more likely to revisit the audio version of this concert than the visual one. Compared with the bright, attention-getting DVD sound, that on the CD is comparatively warm and soft grained; the latter has a nicely extended bass, with pellucid mid and upper frequencies. Ambient noise is more noticeable, but that just adds to the atmosphere.
An auspicious DVD debut for Regent; I await their next release with great interest.