Prom 21: Olivier Latry

Prom 21: The Art of Transcription
Olivier Latry, organ
Royal Albert Hall, 4 August 2019

In what must be the most inept bit of programming in musical history, the BBC Proms has seen fit, for yet another year, to programme the only organ recital of the Proms at 11am on a Sunday, when most organists will be earning a pittance playing for church services. I cannot think of another instrument where the choice of a specific day and time could exclude a key part of the potential audience. That said, there was a pretty impressive audience for this concert, far more than at the previous Sunday’s evening Prom of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles. And what a treat they had. Olivier Latry is one of the organists at Notre Dame who when not on his week’s turn of duty there has built an enviable reputation at a touring recitalist and teacher. His programme focused on the art of transcription, an aspect of organ performance that dates back to early Renaissance times but reached its peak in England in the 19th century when W T Best became Liverpool Corporation Organists (in 1855) and, over a period spanning around 40 years, gave three organ recitals a week in St George’s Hall. He was the first organist to give a recital in the Royal Albert Hall, in 1871.

Although in those early days, there was an element of an organist being a cheaper option than a full symphony orchestra, the art of transcription has now progressed well beyond that approach. and Oliver Latry is one of a number of present-day organists who have pioneered a more idiomatic organ approach to transcription, as he writes, to “create our own orchestration”.  1871 ‘Father’ Willis organ is one of the most spectacular of the English town/concert hall organs, and is ideally suited to the chosen programme. It opened with Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance as transcribed by the Finnish organist Kalevi Kiviniemi. It was followed by Manuel de Falla’s Ritual fire dance from the ballet El amor brujo – the story of an Andalusian gipsy woman who is haunted by the ghost of a former lover who haunts her. The dance is part of an exorcism ritual which conjures up the ghost himself until, in a keyboard glissando, disappears into the fire.

Subtler music followed with Beethoven Adagio in F major, composed for a mechanical clock with a tiny flute organ inside it and then transcribed for a full-sized organ. As with most pieces written for such mechanical devices, the composition need pay no attention to the human practicalities of actually playing the notes. The resulting piece sounds simple and straightforward but is far from it. The only unadulterated organ piece of the programme was THE Toccata and Fugue in D minor, although Oliver Latry’s performance of it was far from unadulterated. He used all the effects of the massive four-manual organ, included devices such as Swell Boxes, that Bach never new. Only rarely did we hear a registration that Bach would have recognised. Not one for the purists, but great fun. The way Latry playing into the acoustic was particularly impressive, combining clarity and drama in equal measure.

The following three pieces reflected the Bach theme, the attractive them of Gigout’s Air célèbre de la Pentecôte, based on a Bach cantata aria that sounds like a revivalist song. Jean Guillou’s syncretic version of Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on the name BACH combined the original organ version with Liszt’s later piano version, adding twiddles to Liszt’s already tricky writing. We had the inevitable round of applause after the Prelude, covering the first ppp notes of the Fugue. The fourth of Widor’s Bach Mementos the Marche du veilleur de nuit is based on the chorale melody Wachet auf, which Bach himself also transcribed from a cantata aria to a solo organ piece. Saint‐Saëns Danse macabre completed the transcription element of the programme before Latry’s concluding 13-minute improvisation on two themes by Berlioz, pre-announced in the programme rather than, as is often the case with improvisations, given to the organist just before he is due to start playing. The Art of Improvisation is one in which Latry excels, as was evident in this innovative example.

The encore was the Toccata from Boëllmann’s Suite Gothique. What was particularly impressive was that the entire recital was performed from memory. That is achievement enough in terms of remembering the notes, but the complex registrations and with four manuals to choose from, add considerable memory tests to that skill. I only spotted one near-miss landing on the wrong manual. It was also good to see Latry actually pulling stops manually towards the end. Pressing combination pistons doesn’t quite have the visual appeal of somebody leaning across to the swarms of stops ranked on either sie of the player.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and can be heard for up to 30 days from then here.