Lunchtime Organ Concert with Lichfield Cathedral Choir – 3 April 2023. 4****. Paul Gray

Langlais – Messe Solennelle * Ridout – 3 Resurrection Dances * Vaughan Williams – Five Mystical Songs

There is no doubt that living in the city of Birmingham we have the rare joy of experiencing the outstanding playing of City Organist, Thomas Trotter, usually as part of one of his Monday Lunchtime Recitals, either in Symphony Hall, Birmingham Town Hall, or on other organs of note in both the City and the wider arena of the Midlands, such as at Lichfield cathedral.

A particular joy of Monday’s Lunchtime Concert in Symphony Hall, was the addition of truly beautiful voices from the members of Lichfield Cathedral Choir, with whom Thomas Trotter has a close association. And what a wonderful concert it was. There were just three works: two for choir and organ, and a thrilling set of Three Resurrection Dances by Alan Ridout for organ alone.

Before Thomas performed the Dances, he briefly explained their construction, and this gave us, the audience, a wonderful “road map”, if you will, to follow. Given that these are contemporary pieces, it was so very good to have this map to follow. They are also wonderfully virtuosic with Thomas’s hands and feet flying around like something possessed! The Ridout really showed off the genius of Thomas Trotter and the magnificence of the organ in Symphony Hall. Simply splendid.

The first work in the programme, the Missa Solennelle by the 20th Century, totally blind, French composer, Jean Langlais, is a gigantic work, which both choir and organ performed with immense conviction. Given that Langlais was himself blind, and that I, your humble reviewer, is mostly blind(!) it was an extraordinary experience to hear this work, and one can only wonder at the marvel of a totally blind composer creating such a remarkable work. Also, exhilarating conducting by Ben Lamb.

Mind you, this is not easy music to listen to! As my companion noted – and my Guide Dog concurred(!) – Langlais’s sound-world grew out of the same period & aesthetic which gave us the “brutalist” movement in architecture: massive, blocky, utilitarian and not particularly empathetic to the either the listener or for any church member hoping for a quiet, prayerful communion with God. The Agnus Dei, for example, is pretty scary stuff, and not the kind of “Pacem” (“Peace”) the text of the “Lamb of God” might have inspired. This felt like a very angry God.

In Birmingham of course, we have many examples of brutalist architecture, so the Missa Solennelle was highly apt. Sometimes, perhaps, there was a slight disconnect between the rhythmic accuracy of the choir; their entries were a little behind conductor and organist on occasion, and this is almost certainly to do with the choir not being familiar with the very amazing, yet very particular, acoustics of Symphony Hall.  

The final work in the lunchtime concert was the rapturous Five Mystical Songs by Vaughan Williams for solo voice, choir and organ. The soloist here was Lichfield Cathedral Lay Clerk Fran Ambrose. Having heard this work performed many times over the years, Baritone Fran Ambrose gave a truly exceptional performance. Deeply moving.

Fran’s voice is exquisite, and his reading of the Mystical Songs was sublime. Indeed, the word “mystical” applies equally to the title of the work, and to Fran’s deeply personal & intimate interpretation. Fran has a heroic, clarion upper voice; a beautifully balanced and blended middle register; and a lower voice with warmth and a developing timbre. This is a young man to watch.

A superb Monday Lunchtime Concert and a glorious way to start the week.

ReviewsGate Copyright Protection