Thomas Trotter: Virtuoso Organ Showpieces

On DVD: Birmingham’s city organist at the town hall

Author: 
Jeremy Nicholas

Thomas Trotter: Virtuoso Organ Showpieces

  • Concert Overture in C
  • Organ Pieces, Largo
  • Organ Pieces, Allegro
  • Organ Pieces, Aria
  • Organ Pieces, Variation I
  • Organ Pieces, Variation II
  • Variations on a theme by Paganini for pedals
  • Bells across the meadows
  • (The) Three Elizabeths, Youth of Britain: The Princess Elizabeth
  • (The) Typewriter
  • (Die) Meistersinger von Nürnberg, '(The) Masters, Overture
  • To the Evening Star
  • (Der) Ring des Nibelungen: Part 2, '(Die) Walküre', Hojotoho! (Ride of the Valkyries)
  • 1812

Filming an organist playing a recital is a notoriously difficult assignment. Either the position of the organ will not allow easy camera access and offer only restricted angles, or the sound is poorly captured, or sound and picture synchronisation is not consistent, or the producer is more interested in the architecture than the performance, or watching and hearing the organist play is like watching paint dry. I have seen examples of all over the years. It is, as I say, difficult to get all the elements right. This film comes as close as any.

The position of the magnificent William Hill organ in Birmingham Town Hall makes it relatively easy for camera placement. Traffic noise, which bedevilled all attempts to record the instrument prior to its refurbishment (1996-2007), seems to have been eliminated. Birmingham is one of the few cities in the UK enlightened enough to retain the post of City Organist, one it created in 1834. They are a long-serving bunch: Thomas Trotter, the present incumbent, appointed in 1983, is only the fourth to hold the position in the last 125 years. The programme he has chosen is, as the DVD/CD’s subtitle notes, one of ‘Virtuoso Organ Showpieces’ in the tradition of the weekly recitals given in the Town Hall since 1842.

Helpfully for the film editor, Trotter plays everything from memory – so no continuity problems with scores, page-turners or, as they would on the continent, registration assistants. In fact my only disappointment is that there are so few opportunities to see how the organist changes the registration: it’s not just the many coupling aids, pistons and digital pre-programming devices with which the instrument is endowed that make them invisible, but Trotter operates with a sleight of hand that’s as slick as a conjurer’s.

The performances are everything one has come to expect from one of the world’s greatest organists, notable for their clarity, rhythmic buoyancy, stylistic taste, imaginative colouring – and the ability to amaze. The three Wagner transcriptions by Lemare are worth the price of the set alone, but when you add the Paganini Variations for pedals by Thalben-Ball (Trotter’s predecessor at Birmingham), Coates’s march Youth of Britain, to which Trotter somehow adds the orchestra’s whirling countersubject in the second statement of the Trio, his own delicious transcription of The Typewriter (clever use of the organ’s bell stop) and an 1812 Overture that rattles the crockery, then one’s astonishment – and pleasure – is complete.

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