Floretz: Prélude from l’Enfant noir, Op. 17
Messiaen: L’ascension – 4 méditations symphoniques
Widor: Organ Symphony No. 5
Olivier Latry, organ
Royal Festival Hall, 27 February 2014
The Southbank Centre is showing off its newly refurbished Festival Hall organ in style with a series of concerts and recitals featuring some big names. Olivier Latry is perhaps the most celebrated organist among those participating in the festival. He is organist of Notre Dame, and an accomplished recitalist with a global following. He is particularly noted for his Messiaen, and the four movements from L’ascension were certainly the highlight of this programme. But he’s a versatile player, and although this was an all-French programme, it was a diverse one too, and showed off a good range of the renovated instrument’s capabilities.
The programme opened with an oddity, the Prelude from l’Enfant Noir by Jean-Louis Floretz, a Parisian organist who died in 2004. The prelude is part of an unfinished suite inspired by a novel by the French-African author Camara Laye. Apparently, Floretz studied ethnomusicology, but the ethnographic dimension of this seemed slightly suspect. A percussive, rhythmically complex accompaniment is presumably meant to represent African drumming. Over this we hear simple pentatonic melodies with more than a passing resemblance to various spirituals. Floretz studied with Messiaen, and like almost every French organ composer of his generation struggled to escape Messiaen’s overbearing influence, even here, where we are supposed to be transported far from Paris. It is a fun piece though, and a good concert opener. It also gave Latry a good opportunity to show off his nimble fingerwork, and the clarity he can draw, even at loud volumes, from appropriate register combinations.
Both the Messiaen and the Widor were performed from memory, quite a feat in itself, and an indication of Latry’s affinity with this music, which he had no trouble conveying, even on what must be an unfamiliar instrument to him. Everything came together in the Messiaen meditations, the precision of Latry’s touch, the appropriateness of his register combinations, and, most significantly of all, the sense of pace and precise timing with which he unfolded these works. In the first movement, long silences separate the individual phrases, and presumably these were included by Messiaen to accommodate the long decay time in a large church. Latry kept the gaps, which here were effectively silent in the dry acoustic of the Festival Hall, but paced the music well to accommodate them. Elsewhere, Messiaen’s textures are spiky and dissonant, but the clarity of Latry’s playing ensures equal clarity here. The last movement requires him to gradually build up the textures by gradually adding in registers, which he did with a canny ear for colour and timbral weight. A highly accomplished performance and one that left us wanting more from this composer.
Sadly, though, there was no more Messiaen on offer. In fact the programming of the second half was a matter of some contention. Latry came on to the stage before he played to explain that he had originally planned to perform Stravinsky’s four-hand piano arrangement of The Rite of Spring with his wife. But apparently the publisher had blocked the plan because they did not want this piano version played on the organ. Latry was clearly very annoyed about this and, rightly I think, described it as a very petty decision. He rubbed it in a bit by telling us that audiences in America, where the publisher in question has no jurisdiction, had enjoyed the Latrys’ version. He was valiant enough not to name the publisher, but I’m going to, it’s Boosey & Hawkes. So what are they up to? Perhaps they fear a deluge of unauthorised reorchestrations – for tuba quartet or whatever. Even so, the decision seemed heavy-handed in this case.
Instead we got Widor’s Fifth Symphony, and after his little tirade it was clear that Latry’s heart really wasn’t in it. The opening movement was scrappy, with Latry’s limbs not co-ordinating as they had previously. Much of the quiet music in the inner movements was uninspired, with pedestrian register choices and little rubato. The Toccata was good though, more nuanced than we usually hear, with Latry finding a spare finger or toe at many crucial points to make subtle but telling register changes. And despite this being a predominantly German organ, by tradition and design, Latry was able to produce some properly Gallic sounds for the Widor, mixing the lighter registers to create subtle and inviting colours and making full use of the swell pedals to shape phrases.
And to finish – an improvisation. Latry announced that the simple theme he was using was one that André Marchal had improvised on in 1954 at the inaugural concert of this instrument. It sounded to me like the theme to Inspector Gadget. The improvisation itself was a tour de force, episodic and with all the expected elements, a scherzo opening, a chorale prelude with the theme in the pedals, a Baroque fugato with four(ish) voices of counterpoint and a toccata ending. Quite a feat, and a proper workout for the organ too.