Parisian organist Olivier Latry presented a stunning “Celebrity” recital on Sunday afternoon, at Harvard’s Memorial Church to a large audience who knew that excitement and prowess would be evident in the organ music within as well as at the Head of the Charles Regatta going on simultaneously upon the nearby Charles River.
Latry, who is Titulaire des Grands Orgues, Notre-Dame de Paris, presented a brief tour through the French organ school and played both of Mem Church’s “new” organs. The 2012 C. B. Fisk Op. 139 in the rear gallery was heard in French Classical pieces by Marchand and Balbastre, a late-period religious masterpiece by Messiaen, a spirited, composed-improvisation by Escaich and a concluding improvisation by Latry. Two favorite Romantic-school mainstays, by Franck and Vierne, sang forth from the front of the church, on the 1929 Skinner Op. 793 in Appleton Chapel.
Your reviewer requests a moment for retrospection, both for those who are familiar with Latry and those who have yet to hear him. Twenty-seven years ago, at age twenty-three, Latry won one of four Titular Organist posts at Notre-Dame. The organ world buzzed, amazed. After all, in France such positions are for a lifetime. Latry was introduced to Boston in a recital at the Mother Church, Christian Scientist, in 2003, and next was heard here at Holy Cross Cathedral in 2005. Richard Buell’s Boston Globe review of the 2003 recital was titled “Organist Latry’s Boston Debut is a Triumph”. Latry now has become an even more accomplished and communicative player, as we heard in Sunday’s concert.
Louis Marchand’s 17th C. Grand Dialogue en Ut (in C) opened the recital in the manner of a grand entrance, with C major chords in ascending voicings, giving opportunity to hear the organ’s Cavaillé-Coll style reeds, in particular the Trumpet 8’ and Clarion 4’ on the Great division and Basson 16’, Trompette 8’ and Hautbois 8’ on the Swell. Though these reeds have 19th-century scaling, they made a convincing sound for this earlier piece. This multi-sectional work also featured contrasts of the cornet composé stops on the Great and Positive manuals.
The organ pieces by Claude-Bénigne Balbastre generally heard in recital are his variations on Noëls, but Latry presented three unadorned little gems from the 1749 Livre d’orgue de Dijon. The pastorale-like “Air” (two voices only) was most pleasing with the melody played on the Positive division’s Gedackt 8’, combined with the Cavaillé-Coll style Nasard 2 2/3’ (this rank plays an octave and a fifth above concert pitch, emphasizing the overtone series) and tremulant, with the bass voice on the Swell division’s Bourdon 8. Balbastre, who moved from Dijon to Paris in 1750, was organist at St. Roch church and then Notre-Dame and the Chapelle Royale.
The audience expected that the entire recital would be played on the new Fisk “out of” Gloucester, MA, which had been installed last spring. Indeed, the occasion for Latry’s recital is the full-year celebration of this organ named in memory of two Harvard legendaries, Charles B. Fisk, organ builder, and the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes.
After playing the Balbastre pieces, though, Latry left the balcony and proceeded to the Skinner organ in the front of the church. On this instrument he played César Franck’s Choral No. 2 in B Minor (1890) and Louis Vierne’s Carillon de Westminster (1927). Franck, Titular of Sainte-Clotilde, 1858 to 1872, played and composed on a Cavaillé-Coll organ; and Vierne, Titular of Notre-Dame, 1900 to 1937, played that cathedral’s Grand Orgue, which had been enlarged and rebuilt by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. For those in the audience who knew that Mem Church’s new Fisk has twenty of its forty-three stops (including the entire Swell division) modeled after Cavaillé-Coll, Latry’s switch to the Skinner could have been a disappointment. This reviewer surmises two possible reasons for Latry’s decision: Skinner organs have long been appreciated by French organists on tour in America and the Fisk does not yet have a needed stop for the Franck Choral, a Voix humaine.
What followed, in Latry’s performances of the Franck and Vierne, was extraordinarily beautiful. He began the passacaglia-like Choral at an adagio tempo (slower than one usually hears it) and the emotion was undeniably sad and mournful. The organ’s diapason and foundation stops were warm and rich in sound. By the fourth presentation of the theme, in the pedal with brilliant, triplet figuration in the manuals, Latry had increased both tempo and registration to toccata levels. (Titular organist Louis Robilliard says that the stark, fortissimo octaves in the right hand part here represent the four ends of the Cross, and in conversation with Latry following his recital, he agreed with the sentiment of this interpretation.) As the octaves ended, Latry skillfully relaxed both sound and tempo for the lovely cantabile second theme. The entire performance followed in this vein; it was completely remarkable and communicated a great depth of feeling. This oft-performed piece can sound sectionalized and lengthy, but Latry’s presentation was so united as one thought that it seemed brief. This was mature playing at its best.
The Skinner organ surely had proved itself on the Choral, but what about the Vierne Carillon de Westminster, usually considered a fiery, warhorse piece? Here too Latry gave the perfect performance, due to his traditional registrations, his absolutely steady tempo (who ever heard a clockwork carillon speed up?), his dramatic crescendi and a decrescendo section that sounded as if the carillon were enveloped in fog, and finally his sunburst closing with all the figurations in a glorious, bell-swinging conclusion. How appropriate that Latry is a successor to Vierne at Notre-Dame!
Following intermission Latry spoke about the next piece, L’apparition du Christ ressuscité à Marie-Madeleine (The Appearance of the Risen Christ to Mary Magdalene) from Livre du Saint-Sacrement by Olivier Messiaen (1984). Messiaen was organist at Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris from 1931 until his death in 1992. After showing early improvisation skills on the piano Messiaen had studied organ with Marcel Dupré and thereby inherited the tradition of great French organists: Dupré had studied with Charles-Marie Widor and Louis Vierne, himself a pupil of César Franck.
Latry told the audience of Messiaen’s intention in L’apparition, that it be a musical depiction of the risen Christ speaking to the grief-stricken, then joyous, Mary Magdalene on that Easter Sunday morning. The piece was among the composer’s last compositions. It was written nine years after Messiaen’s 1975 heralded visit to Boston for the BSO performances of his Turangalîla-Symphonie, conducted by Seiji Ozawa, with Yvonne Loriod, Messian’s wife at the piano. A companion Messian celebration was held at New England Conservatory with breathtaking performances of his music, including Quatuor pour la fin du temps, in Jordan Hall.
As Latry began playing L’apparition on the Fisk, immediately it was apparent that this organ, with warm foundation stops, bold reeds and colorful mutations, is ideal for Messiaen as it would be for Dupré. The piece begins with swirling chords, reminiscent of Dupré’s writing in some sections of Le Chemin de la Croix (The Stations of the Cross). As in Dupré’s writing, when Christ speaks His voice is heard as a reed stop. Messiaen accompanies these music-words with birdsongs thereby adding to their holiness. At first there were birdsongs for several seconds in different reiterations; they increased and the Fisk organ seemed transformed to be a chorus of birds! It was astounding. Latry’s unique giftedness in hand motion, his timing and understanding of Messiaen’s intent, and the organ’s responsiveness made it perfect. The piece returned to the Dupré-like moving chords, then softer, sustained chords repeated for a second hearing; seventh chords next faded down in inversions; the piece ended with a simple triad in second inversion with nearly inaudible low pedal notes underneath. (Readers will want to know that Latry has recorded the entire organ works of Messiaen in highly lauded performances.)
Thierry Escaich’s Évocation II concluded the composed works in this concert. Escaich, a contemporary of Latry’s, was appointed organist at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont church in Paris in 1996, succeeding Maurice Duruflé. He also is an orchestral composer and teaches at the Parish Conservatory. Évocation II returned us to C Major in a way most different from the courtly opening of the Marchand Dialogue. Escaich’s score directive is “Implacable” and there are relentless C-octaves played in the pedal through nearly the entire piece — at least 800 times. There are no bar lines and occasional syncopated shifts in the repetitions preclude any sense of meter. Two familiar melodies appear in part: a wild, joyful version of the Gregorian antiphon, Ubi caritas and Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele (used twice by Bach).
For the concluding improvisation, Latry was given two themes: a fast, fun, irregular-rhythm melody by Carson Cooman, Composer in Residence at Mem Church, and C. H. H. Parry’s hymn tune Laudate Dominum. Latry began with Cooman’s melody, playing several variations and moving to higher pitches until the music sounded somewhat like birds, at which point he introduced “Praise my soul, the King of Heaven.” There was much virtuosic playing and harmonic variation as the improvisation and recital came to an epic end.
The audience showed its appreciation with a lengthy, standing ovation. With the Fisk and Skinner organs, Memorial Church has reawakened as a fine place for organ recitals. The next ones will be on Tuesdays, October 30 and November 13. Boston can look forward to hearing Olivier Latry again next March 24-26, making his BSO debut in Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, the “Organ” symphony.