Organists love the chance to hear an instrument given a workover, especially when it is by world-renowned organist Olivier Latry, one of the titulaires des grands orgues at Notre-Dame. It was somewhat remiss of the BBC, then, to schedule Latry’s Prom for a Sunday morning – a time when the programme’s core audience of organists would be busy playing their own instruments.
The Albert Hall organ (rebuilt in the 1930s by Harrison and Harrison) must have presented Latry with not a few challenges; unlike the gnarly, complexity of French Cavaillé-Colls, its orchestral colouring tends to the more staid and woofy, but he rose to the challenge with élan (and without a single score in front of him), coaxing some splendid timbral contrasts out of the old beast.
The opening dances (Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance and de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance) were full of sparkle and brilliance; comedic pedal oom-pahs opened the Khachaturian, and the melody in the de Falla was given contrasting treatment from a closed-box reed and the larger metal stops.
Beethoven’s Adagio in F for mechanical clock really needs the squeaks and pops of a baroque instrument to take it beyond the limited range of a small mechanical organ, but Latry did what he could with it, finishing with a delicate flourish on the seldom-heard carillon.
There was simply no point in trying for an authentic Bach sound for the composer’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, so Latry played not only to the strengths of the instrument, but to the gallery, delivering a Gothick account in which seemingly every phrase was given a different texture (and the held, quiet, string-tone chord at the transition from toccata to fugue, though not in the Ringk manuscript, was a delightfully theatrical addition).
The recital wasn’t all about immensity, though, and two thoughtfully chosen works spoke to the organ’s English stolidity: Gigout’s Air célèbre de la Pentecôte and Widor’s Marche du veilleur de nuit (from his set of Bach Mementos) both had their moments, Latry again showing his mastery of the palette available. The Gigout contained a charming reed solo, contrasting with a lower reed over a flute chorus; the difference between the orchestral material and the chorale for Widor’s arrangement of Wachet auf was pointed up using a closed box for the former, and a fuller sound for the latter.
Guillou’s arrangement of Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H. merges Liszt’s original organ piece with material from his subsequent piano transcription, and Latry responded by going to town on keyboard technique to craft a darkly sonorous, albeit end-of-the-pier performance: some might have considered it on the vulgar side, but this was Liszt in the Albert Hall, and therefore not in the least out of place.
There’s a tendency for organ transcriptions of orchestral works to sound gabbled in what would be busy orchestral string passages, and there was a hint of this in Lemare’s transcription of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, but compensation was offered by Latry’s wide range of textures that included the opening on the tubular bell, some flutey whirling, gusty pedal work and a damped reed emerging from the instrument’s guts.
French organists are renowned for their improvisation, and Latry is a master. His final essay was his own take on a number of themes, one of which was ‘Un bal’ from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Again, it was full of changing colours and dynamics; towards the end, Latry even managed to persuade a Notre-Dame timbre from the instrument.
Latry’s choice of the toccata from Boëllmann’s Suite Gothique as an encore piece, confirmed his complete ownership of core French repertoire.