Waxing digital

Following a long-hallowed tradition, Trotter was able to promote, tongue-in- cheek at the end, a new disc issued to celebrate his 40 years.

It features, he told us, some of his favourite pieces. Can one recommend it unhesitatingly? Maybe not entirely, because some of it is…well…frankly a bit dull. Mind you, his striking interest in ‘transpositions’, or arrangements (witness Lemare above), has led him to turn his hand to them himself. Lots and Lots. Three items on the disc are such transformations.

One is Trotter’s own treatment for organ of Holst’s The Planets – the ‘Jupiter’ (4th) movement. It’s a deft piece of transliteration, and most welcome because it includes, of course, the tune made famous as the hymn tune ‘I vow to Thee, My Country’ (words added about three years later, in 1921). The Planets suite, one of the biggest hits in all classical music, was actually composed during the First World War; (Sir) Adrian Boult conducted its premiere, believe it or not, just 12 days before the triple eleven Armistice: 11 a.m. on 11th day of the 11th month (November) 1918 , upon which the horrors came to an end.

Jupiter, Holst (or someone) decided, is ‘The Bringer of Jollity’: we get some of that. Jupiter is possibly more straightforward to capture on the organ than a couple of the other movements (Saturn, which was Holst’s own favourite, or the concluding ‘Neptune, the Mystic’). But Trotter’s musicianship in making the transfer shines through, not to mention his naturally superb playing throughout, making this a highlight of the disc, ‘Thomas Trotter – A Celebration’ (Regent Records REGCD 584).

There’s a six-minute minimalist contemporary piece by the accomplished South African (subsequently Irish) composer Kevin Volans: a little repetitive (almost a definition of Minimalism), too long quite to hold its own, but it was an original idea to include something of the kind. Mendelssohn is represented in an arrangement of the Overture to his lesser-known ‘big’ oratorio St. Paul, made by the outstanding Victorian organist William Best, one of those known for such organ transfers: Handel was his speciality.

trotter sorcery

A disc perhaps not that thrilling for its first half, but the second half is certainly bracing and exciting. Thomas Trotter has included another of his smart, clever arrangements, a sort of ‘oompah’ piece by The Dam Busters March’s composer, Eric Coates. It’s called the Knightsbridge March, and was used as the signal tune for the famous, long-running BBC Home Service news and documentary programme In Town Tonight. It’s a laugh, again one of the best things on this slightly mixed recording. So is Madeleine Dring’s similarly chirpy Caribbean Dance (Trotter’s registration of this is brilliant). Healey Willan (1880-1968) took off for Canada and became a big name in Toronto. He composed no less than 14 settings of the Missa Brevis (Mass without the Credo), a flood of church anthems, seven operas, two symphonies, etc., etc.

Willan’s Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue is his still most famous organ work. It does deserve its reputation, even if it’s not about to set the world afire. The eight-minute central Passacaglia does have its moments, but like Hubert Parry’s Fantasia and Fugue in G, with which this disc commences, it’s all a bit iffy. However partway through it does make a big noise. Why does the Passacaglia content somehow not feel a patch on Bach? A question. Maybe Willan’s final Fugue is more successfully Bachian.

Valse mignonne is by no means Siegfried Karg-Elert’s most effective piece: but a noble attempt at being light-hearted by this eminent German composer (1877-1933). Trotter can appear at his best when he pulls out the Tremulant stop. Somewhere between emotive and sleazy, he can use it to make things sound like a cinema organ. That’s the fun bit.

Canadian composer Rachel Laurin died only two months ago; one wonders if she was able to hear Trotter’s pretty exciting performance on this disc, but he’s played it several times before, so maybe she got a glimpse then. There’s a lot of punch in her Étude héroique, described in the record’s sleeve notes as ‘exhilarating’, and at eight minutes long it’s certainly a goody, which holds you for every second – certainly in Trotter’s brilliantly exciting performance here. Laurin’s striking 15-minute Sweelinck Variations (based on the celebrated Dutch composer) form the climax to another Trotter disc, REGCD 566.

So a mixed bag, perhaps, but the best bits are eminently worthwhile. Above all else, one has to welcome Trotter’s many other high-quality performances on Regent Records, some with attractive or fancy titles: ‘Restored to Glory’(265, which includes the concert’s delicious Rienzi overture), ‘Grand Organ Prom’ (322), ‘Symphony Hall Sorcery’ (566), ‘Sounds of St. Giles’ (302), ‘Chanson de Matin’ (256).

He includes music by the lively Alfred Hollins, yet another terrific transcription of Eric Coates (‘March of the Youth of Britain’), a suite by the nowadays scarcely known, most likely Dutch Renaissance composer Tielman Susato; Tchaikovsky, John Stanley, John Ireland; Elgar’s early Vesper Voluntaries plus two Organ Sonatas (no. 2 an ingenious arrangement by Worcester’s Sir Ivor Atkins); 16 minutes of an amazing pedals-only piece by George Thalben-Ball, the inspirational choirmaster of the Temple Church, Fleet Street; and so on.

Trotter performs on many different organs. His gift for coordinating to maximum benefit stops, pistons and registrations on these is staggering. And for the listener, immensely rewarding. It’s all there on I couldn’t recommend this versatile record label, and Thomas Trotter’s wide-ranging offerings on it, more highly.

So, this bracing 40th birthday concert at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall opens the door to a wealth of Trotter’s contributions to disc (or MP3, if you prefer that method). I dislike the overused term ‘feast’, much favoured on concert posters. But Trotter’s organ output as a whole cannot claim to be anything less: not just a bouquet but a banquet, a joyous spree, almost a binge of good things. ‘One of the greatest players of this, or any, age’, it has been tellingly claimed. ‘I’m in awe of Trotter’s consummate artistry’, says another. Well, the proof of this pudding is in the eating.

Roderic Dunnett 

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