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Music review: Thomas Trotter, 40th Anniversary Concert (Symphony Hall, Birmingham)

03 November 2023

Roderic Dunnett hears a Birmingham celebrity


TO HEAR the organ virtuoso Thomas Trotter perform in the Town Hall or Symphony Hall in Birmingham is quite an experience. But this was a special occasion: a toast to his 40-year tenure as the City Organist, featuring half-a-dozen works in which he himself takes special delight.

First, J. S. Bach: Fantasia and Fugue in G minor. Alongside the explosive D-minor and G-major, the best-known of Bach’s early organ Preludes, this was a showpiece for Trotter’s invariable mastery, and particularly fascinating because, with the console brought down to stage level, you could descry not just his facility on the manuals, but the astonishing dexterity of his pedal-playing: I think, from other events or YouTube, using both heel and toe — maybe the former less frequently, as opposed to the toes-only format propounded by many organ teachers nowadays or recently, and thus passed on to younger executants.

He was called to exercise finesse a good deal. The plum, or one of the two plums, was a new piece from the much-in-demand composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, notable, among other things, for her ingenuity in responding to specific details related to a commission — here, of course, aspects of the City of Birmingham.

So, we were treated to a celebration of: Trotter’s appointment in 1983 to a post that has existed since the 19th century; the present 40th anniversary; the opening of the city’s tallest building, at 458 feet the BT Tower, followed closely by the residential Mercian skyscraper in Broad Street; and the opening of the picturesque Library.

There were treats galore, particularly an evocation of a remarkable fern (tree) in the luscious Botanical Gardens. Named the “Dickson lathamii” (Dicksonia x lathamii), it emanates from Australia and is one of the gardens’ treasures. It was difficult to equate the music with each of Frances-Hoad’s ten tributes; but no doubt there were open and hidden allusions.

Trotter’s biggest unveiling was the vast (roughly 30-minute; the composer took 45 minutes) Fantasia and Fugue by that other virtuoso Franz Liszt, “on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” (”Come to us, to waves of salvation”); not medieval, but culled from a sacred opera by Meyerbeer. It is bigger than Liszt’s famous Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H, and is a sensation rivalling Liszt’s extravagant Piano Sonata in B minor. Trotter gave some helpful introductions to each work, one of which was to clarify the basis of this monumental work.

To watch Trotter encompass this dazzling masterpiece was a thrill: an absorbing visual wonder to set beside the music itself. The audience emerged entranced, as did I.

Thomas Trotter — a Celebration is available on Regent Records, REGCD 584. www.regent-records.co.uk

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