Olivier Latry, the star organist of Notre-Dame de Paris, woke up the mice in the organ of the Royal Albert Hall at the start of his recital with a fairly short version of Khachaturian’s noisy Sabre Dance but his performance showed clearly which direction the recital was heading. His performance style here could not be further from English cathedral organ playing. There was a touch of the swagger of a fairground organ, certainly the bells and whistles (and tremulants and celeste) of a cinema organ. He brought great emotion to the restricted palette of Beethoven’s Adagio for mechanical clock. And blockbuster performances of the two major pieces at the centre of his recital, JS Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on BACH.
Olivier Latry’s performance of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor was a blockbuster, this familiar music set on fire with multiple changes of registrations; canny playing of the acoustic so that the next idea starts under the decaying reverberation of the previous climax, and such supple tempi that brought out the ebb and flow of the ideas. This performance has much the feel of Leopold Stokowki’s famous transcription for orchestra, decried as “Bach in Technicolor”, but seminal in popularising this music in a way that a strict performance on a Sibermann organ of the time of JS Bach - or a modern English cathedral organ - could not.
Willis built the organ of the Albert Hall and Harrisons built the Great organ of Westminster Abbey, then Harrisons rebuilt the Albert Hall for organ a few years ago, so there are stops which sound similar but the Albert Hall has so many more and sadly, it’s rare that we get to hear them. Only Olivier Latry knows if he used all of them in this recital but it seems like he might have missed out only a few. The Albert Hall organ can take on massed military bands, choirs of thousands and the whole Albert Hall singing Jerusalem. It also has great delicacy, a fearsome swell box (deployed by Olivier Latry to devastating effect in the D minor Toccata) and a flexible programmer if you have the time to set it up.
It’s a rare and special occasion where a single performer plays and wins a vast auditorium alone. There were a lot of notes in this programme which Oliver Latry played entirely from memory, just a set list on the organ’s music stand. He had no assistant on stage; the majority of his registrations were programmed so he rarely touched the stops, except in his improvisation at the end of the programme. So this really was just the one performer holding and winning the hall.
And that virtuoso improvisation, neither jazz nor cathedral, nor concert-hall, was a reminder here in the Albert Hall, this temple of so many different musical traditions, that twenty-first century concert music can be thrilling and melodic, dramatic and intellectual. So much of the music we now hear locked down in recordings and from printed sheets came originally from spontaneous music-making, it’s a tradition endangered even more by music as an online service. The Musicians’ Union slogan used to be “Keep Music Live” and Olivier Latry’s improvisation today is a reminder of what we are in danger of loosing, at least in public performance.
There was a warm and rapturous reception from a large audience, many calls. He gave us an encore - Boëllmann’s Toccata from his Suite Gothique.
Aram Khachaturian: Gayane – Sabre Dance (transcr. Kiviniemi)
Manuel de Falla: El amor brujo – Ritual fire dance (transcr. Latry)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Adagio in F major (for mechanical clock)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Eugène Gigout: Air célèbre de la Pentecôte(3 mins)
Franz Liszt: Prelude and Fugue on the name BACH, S 260(14 mins)(arr. Guillou)
Charles-Marie Widor: Bach’s Memento – No. 4: Marche du veilleur de nuit
Camille Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre (arr. Lemare)
Olivier Latry - Improvisation on three themes of Hector Berlioz