Birmingham Town Hall
After a ten-year enforced closure, Birmingham's historic Town Hall has undergone a magnificent £35m restoration, and re-opened in October with an extensive festival of concerts. An important part of the restoration, which has included reverting to the original internal layout by removing the upper gallery, and installing transparent acoustic ceiling panels, has been a refurbishment of the 1834 William Hill organ.
Manders, who did the last major rebuild in 1984, have this time removed the little-used fifth manual and made the Bombarde into a 'floating' division, updated the 1984 combinations to a Solid State system, added three new stops, and revoiced some others. They have also installed a three-octave set of handbells (playable from the Solo Organ) to replace bells mysteriously 'lost' from the original instrument.
Thomas Trotter gave two packed-out re-opening concerts to show off the improvements. The acoustic enhancements to the building have made a noticeable difference: although the organ sounds basically the same there's a new clarity and focus to the various voices, and balance has been vastly improved.
Much of what Trotter played we had heard before – extracts from a Handel concerto, the first movement of Widor's Fifth Symphony (much better than the well-worn Toccata), Lemare's transcriptions of Danse Macabre (pretty good) and Bizet's Carmen Suite (tediously long) and, of course, Elgar, whose Organ Sonata has been rather done to death during the last year. Trotter offered just the first movement but, in a programme primarily intended to show off the organ's tonal resources as well as his technique, especially his management of flawless registration changes, it was enough.
Pride of place in these familiar offerings was George Thalben-Ball's Paganini Variations for pedals, a great party piece of Trotter's illustrious predecessor as Birmingham City Organist, and a must-have inclusion at this celebratory time.
Two items were completely new. Morandi's Bell Rondo demonstrated the bells to charming, if unintentionally hilarious effect, and Paul Patterson's aptly titled Brumba (Brum and Rumba, if you're wondering) provided a world première of heady excitement and virtuoso challenges.
The piece is a rhythmically driven toccata, constantly shifting in shape and register, punctuated by dissonant chordal splashes, and building to an exhilaratingly exultant climax. It's an extremely attractive and quite intoxicating little work which organists everywhere will love tackling. Trotter, of course, threw it off brilliantly.
With two world-class instruments (the other being Symphony Hall's 2001 Klais) now in his Birmingham portfolio, Trotter must be a very happy man – and who can blame him?
Back to: Performance reviews
All content © Musical Opinion Ltd.