To jaded old pros, like myself, going to an organ recital has long since lost its allure. The prospect of hearing a player (whom we’ve usually heard before), playing music (which we already know) on an organ (the sound of which is familiar to us) is not in itself what keeps us going along time after time. What attracts us is the unique juxtaposition of all three. We are fascinated to hear what music (and why) such-and-such an organist has chosen to include in the programme, how it’s going to sound on the organ and what the organist does to the music and to the organ which make both sound different.
English organist Thomas Trotter is one of the really big names on the circuit, and his style of playing is deeply familiar from his innumerable live recitals, his large number of recordings and his many broadcast appearances. A recital by Thomas Trotter is not going to spring any surprises; he’s not one to turn up in skin-tight white jeans and a tee-shirt playing Eminem transcriptions, nor is he going to administer to his audience an undiluted diet of Buxtehude chorale preludes in the belief that several hours of extreme monotony is somehow time well spent. (There are organists on the circuit who frequently do both, much to the detriment of the organ’s public reputation.) A Trotter recital is a guarantee of excellent playing, superb mastery of the instrument’s resources, and an interesting and listener-friendly collection of varied repertory which will include some Bach, almost certainly some big Victorian town-hall showpiece, probably some Liszt and without doubt, some transcriptions from the orchestral repertory. We know we will admire his technique, enjoy his easily-communicative virtuosity and revel in his unpretentious musicianship, and most of all feel comfortable that his “common touch” will make for a pleasant hour-and-a-half’s listening.
Trotter was in Singapore last night for only the second time. His previous visit was to open the Esplanade Klais organ in 2002 – a recital which in terms of pure sonic sumptuousness has not been equalled, and certainly has not been bettered, in the intervening 17 years. Sadly, this recital promised no such sonic sumptuousness, for he was not playing on the wonderful and disgracefully under-used Esplanade organ, but on its older, smaller, and much less sumptuous, sister organ in the Victoria Concert Hall. Built by Klais in the 1980s, this horrid and ugly little thing dates back to a period when shrill and piercing were considered preferable to mellow and soothing. The hall’s rebuild and acoustic re-modelling in 2014 did it no favours, and the final nail in its coffin came when someone decided to suspend a dozen or so Perspex screens over the stage. The jury is still out on these so far as the audience is concerned at orchestral concerts (and with their highly reflective surfaces, they provide a disturbing visual distraction by mirroring, upside down, everything that is going on on stage), but there is no question that their arrival signalled the final departure of any vestiges of acoustic breadth to alleviate the hard-edged, nasty sound of the organ. Listening to it in the hall is not so much like receiving a punch in the face, as experiencing that sensation you have standing near the back of a Singapore bus; being blasted by an inescapable barrage of heat and feeling grubby from the perceived exposure to oil-fired fumes. (And I speak as a tireless admirer of Singapore buses.)
Trotter’s programme seemed to be planned with the Esplanade in mind, and I was not alone in wondering how big, aural spectaculars such as Liszt’s BACH Prelude & Fugue and Edwin Lemare’s classic transcription of Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March No.1 could possibly succeed on the Victoria Hall organ with its single-minded devotion to looking and sounding like people in the 1980s imagined the organs of Buxtehude’s time to look and sound. But Trotter is not one of the world’s greatest and most communicative organists for nothing, and what he can’t do with an organ simply isn’t worth knowing.
Perhaps he resorted a little too often to the full organ sound – with big pieces on a small organ, that is inevitable – but he managed to alleviate the fundamentally offensive quality of what organists describe as the “pleno” (basically, pulling out all the stops to make the loudest noise) by the ingenious device of surrounding each pleno with a little bit of space. This not only took the strain off our ears, but more importantly, it prevented an inevitable consequence of wind-powered pipe organs (a problem those who play their electronic cousins do not have and do not even think about); when you play lots of notes together with all the pipes sounding (and it is worth pointing out to the uninitiated that a single key depressed on the organ can send wind up several dozen pipes simultaneously, some of which are well over five metres in length) you use up a great deal of wind, and smaller organs (and quite a few large ones too) simply don’t have that much wind in reserve. The result is a marked drop in pitch. This happened time and time again when Trotter trotted out the pleno, but by his judicious use of pauses and small breaks in the flow, he was able to avoid that horrible moment when the drop in pitch is cruelly laid bare as intonation is restored to normal service. It was little tricks like that, which are the hallmarks of a truly fine organist, which helped make the Victoria Hall organ sound quite acceptable.
I must have heard the Victoria Hall organ dozens of times (I even played it myself on a couple of occasions, when it was in the pre-rebuilt hall) and never, in all those performances, have I ever heard it sound so nice as it did here. It’s still an ugly little instrument, but under Trotter’s infinitely caring ministrations, it revealed surprising delights. Trotter clearly felt that the soft flute stops of the organ were its biggest charmers, and he used them frequently to very great effect – even highlighting them in his encore, the inevitable Humoresque (Toccatina) by Pietro Yon, a composer known for just two works; the standard encore piece which all organists have up their sleeves, and a Christmas song which Pavarotti invariably used as his encore piece (Gesu Bambino).
As for the programme itself, it did come up with one novelty for me in the shape of a transcription for organ solo of J C Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto Op.1 No.6. Using the flutes and playing with delightfully crisp and nimble fingerwork, Trotter opened my eyes to something I don’t think I had ever heard before – and something which I would very much hope to hear again. For me, this was very much the musical highlight of his programme.
The programme ostensibly celebrated the bi-centenary of modern Singapore’s founding and its absorption into the British Empire. But drawing on his vast repertory, Trotter, opened the recital with a collection of party-pieces which had nothing to do with 1819, Singapore, or, indeed, the British Empire. Their unifying factor was Bach, but not quite as you might expect.
He began with a piece which was by Bach, if not intended by Bach to be heard as we heard it here. Bach wrote all three bits of the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue (BWV564) at different times and for different purposes, and it seems they were only ever brought together as a unified work sometime in the early 19th century. I’m not sure the Toccata, with its flamboyant manual flourishes, extended pedal solos and complete lack of real invention, can be held up as an example of Bach at his greatest, but the enchanting Adagio and its gloriously tongue-twisting Fugue add substance to the frivolity of the Toccata. As an opener, it provided the perfect vehicle to showcase Trotter’s immaculate fingerwork and his crystal clear articulation – you could, indeed, hear every single note, and you could hear that every single note was not just correctly played, but perfectly placed. Some of the echo effects in the Toccata did not quite work, but they served their purpose in taking some of the pressure off our ears in an otherwise very forthright and sustained outburst of loud organ tone.
Deliberately modelled on Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, Alberto Ginastera’s Toccata, Villancico and Fugue on BACH (Op.18) dates from 1947 and is often trotted out by organists because, like similar pieces by Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich, it is the only organ work by a notable 20th century composer. I’m not sure it has many other selling points, although in his charming spoken introductions to the programme, Trotter did suggest that we listen out for a moment which was his particular favourite in the piece (and, yes, it highlighted the soft flutes). The mere fact that he had told us to listen out for this, helped most of the audience get through what was really a rather unattractive if (for organists) interesting piece of music.
It was lucky for us that Trotter did offer fluently delivered and easily-grasped spoken introductions, for the printed programme notes offered nothing of interest and were embarrassing by their peddling of basic errors and misinformation. Few other organists, however, could have got away with telling his audience that “they were in for a treat” when describing the way he was to play his next work. But even the most ardent Liszt-iophile would hardly say that their God-like Hero was at his best in the Prelude & Fugue on BACH, with its obsessive, manic reiterations of the four-note figure which, in German notation, spells out the letters B-A-C-H. It’s certainly a popular organ piece, because it makes lots of noise and goes very fast. Trotter did not disappoint in either regard, and his virtuosity, as well as the incredible clarity of sound, meant that we did, indeed, hear, as promised, “every single note”.
If the first half of the programme had celebrated Bach in various guises, the second did, at least, manage a peripheral nod towards 1819 and Sir Stamford Raffles; no music from 1819, but two pieces incorporating a tune familiar throughout the British Empire. “God Save the King” was first written to be played after performances at two London theatres in September 1745 following the catastrophic defeat of King George’s troops under Sir John Cope at the Battle of Prestonpans. When J C Bach arrived in England just 17 years later, “God Save The King” had still not been elevated to the status of official national anthem, so he didn’t think twice about using it as the theme for a set of variations in his Harpsichord Concerto, but by the latter half of the 19th century it was not just the National Anthem of Great Britain but of the whole Empire, and had been re-worded to accommodate the fact that Quest Victoria was on the throne as Empress. The connection between Empress Victoria and Victoria Hall in Empress Place was too strong to be missed, so Trotter gave us a suitably empirical account of W T Best’s classic Introduction, Variations and Finale On "God Save the Queen”.
He ended his programme with transcriptions of works by composers who were born in England at the height of the British Empire – although none actually dated back as far as 1819 and neither, so far as we know, ever set foot in Singapore. Holst was represented by Trotter’s own transcription of “Jupiter” from The Planets. Holst’s orchestral version (which, interestingly, was not the original – he conceived it for two pianos) is a dazzling kaleidoscope of aural effects and ever-changing colours. Here, surely, was something which would defeat even Trotter’s unrivalled skill at handling recalcitrant organs. Not a bit of it. Whilst he spent much of his time darting his hands over to the stops to pull them out and push them in, and stamping with his feet on combination pedals (pedals which add extra stops when you can’t reach them by hand, which are situated above the pedals which produce the notes and beside the pedals which create a crescendo and diminuendo effect) he did have to bring in the services of his page-turner to pull and push a few stops as well as stamp on a couple of combination pedals when his own hands and feet were otherwise occupied. Having someone to do this is a last-resort (a bit like a pianist asking someone to operate the pedals for them) but on the Victoria Hall organ it’s a necessity since the design of the instrument is such as to render it virtually unplayable by a single person. But the page-turner did a marvellous job – as unobtrusive visually and aurally as it was possible to be, never missing his cue, and standing out of the way so that visibility from the auditorium was never impeded. And the result was well worth it – I simply did not imagine the Victoria Hall Klais had it in it to make such a splendid variety of sounds.
Ending with a couple of Elgar transcriptions, there was a welcome sense of release and celebration, which is not to say that they weren’t both brilliantly played and magnificently brought across on the organ. But by that time we had all become so accustomed to Trotter’s effortless virtuosity and easy communication, that we neither noticed the breath-taking virtuosity nor the limitations of the organ, and simply revelled in superlative music-making. That was an organ recital well worth going to, even for us jaded old pros.