Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Olivier Latry review – thrills with Wagner (and others) at the Royal Festival Hall

31 May 2023

A canvas full of colour from one of the world’s best known organists.

The organ at the Royal Festival Hall (Photo: Barry Creasy)

Olivier Latry is one of the most respected organists in the world. Famous not only for his brilliant improvisations in the great French tradition, but for his ability to bring his skill and imagination to organ music of all centuries, from Couperin to Vierne and beyond. His catalogue of recordings is impressive, as befits a Professor of organ at the Conservatoire de Paris and one of the titulaires des grandes orgues at Notre-Dame.

A chance to hear a Latry recital at the Royal Festival Hall, then, was not to be missed, and the quality of the evening did not disappoint. The opening salvo from the Hall’s Harrison & Harrison instrument was Apparition de l’église éternelle by Messaien, a composer with whom Latry’s name is very much linked. The piece’s simple structure (an arch of blocks of Messiaen’s typical chord progressions) needs careful control of volume to succeed (effectively it is a slow crescendo towards the ‘keystone’ C Major chord, and a slow diminuendo to the close), and Latry was the builder for the job, ensuring that each subtle shift in dynamic was attained through the registration textures that suit Messiaen’s music so well, tapping each block into place with the repeated throb of low pedal notes.

Liszt’s St François d’Assise (‘la predication aux oiseaux’) began a short set of musical references to birds and fish, that also pulled in three movements (‘Aquarium’, ‘Volière’, ‘Le cygne’) from Shin-Young Lee’s arrangement of Saint-Saëns’ Le carnaval des animaux. Here, Latry gave us a breathtaking demonstration of the scintillating colours available from the organ’s short pipes. Liszt’s mercurial piece never quite settles, and Latry emphasised this through constantly changing the texture of the lengthy trilling that occasionally gave way to an almost fairground organ section or a reed-chorus fanfare. The fluid motion of ‘Aquarium’s denizens was described with the tiniest mutation stop over bubbling flutes and a rumbling pedal; ‘Volière’ was given a middle ground from more airy metal pipes and a fluttering from a lower mutation stop. Nothing can really replace the cello in depicting the seamless grace of the famous swan, but, for an organ transcription, Latry’s choice of mid-range flutes and metal pipes brought out the piece’s usual air of tranquillity.

A chance to hear a Latry recital at the Royal Festival Hall… was not to be missed…

César Franck’s Pièce héroique was given an account full of contrasting colours from a bright reed chorus through some enjoyable woofs of timpani on the pedals to a cataclysmic close on full organ. Latry opted for quite a brisk account, which didn’t always serve it well, as some of the registration changes felt a little jerky.

Playing transcriptions of orchestral works on an organ presents many challenges: the very ‘binary’ nature of the instrument’s sound production (notes either sound or they don’t) tends to result in a loss of fluidity; and because a stop deploys across the whole manual the texture of harmonic underlay (which, in an orchestra, might be built of several instruments) can become muddy. This latter point is particularly true of Wagner’s writing, where his chromatic shifts are often delineated by the timbres of different instruments: even with 10 fingers, two feet, several manuals and a pedal board, only so much separation is physically possible. By and large, Latry overcame these challenges for the second half of the concert – which featured transcriptions of works by Wagner: the overtures to Der fliegender Holländer and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (arranged by Edwin Lemare) and ‘Allmächt’ger Vater’ from Rienzi (arranged by Sigfrid Karg-Elert) – and while the overall effect was exciting, one was still left with the feeling that the originals won out.

There were, nonetheless, some enthralling moments, and Latry unleashed the full range of the instrument’s orchestral colours to give some dazzling accounts. The horn calls at the opening of Holländer were magnificent, as were the use of a clarinet stop for the quieter, lyrical material, and the immaculately played flutey running passages. The Rienzi aria presented a chance for some warm diapason work and an ethereal long-sounding high note towards the close. The reed chorus in Meistersinger was full of the requisite pomp, even if the predicted muddiness swallowed some of Wagner’s more energetic brass interjections. The dynamic control throughout, though, was masterful, and Wagner’s sudden moments of quiet after a storm came through perfectly.

No Latry recital is complete without one of his famous improvisations, and, to celebrate this month’s Coronation, he opted, as an encore, to improvise on ‘God Save the King’. From the comedic opening pops and squeaks and chromatic whispers of the possibility of the tune, via a section that might have been the strange love child of Stravinsky and Bernstein, to its full-throated chaotic close, never has the world’s most boring national anthem sounded so thrilling.

A special mention must also go to the RFH’s lighting engineers, whose subtle colouring of the vast instrument complemented every piece.

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