If a travelling organ recitalist from, say, New York, Boston, or London were to offer a program limited to works by other organists from his own city, the public would stay away in droves. But if that city happens to be Paris, it's a different story altogether. So it was that a large audience enthusiastically applauded the concert given on this past (Super) Tuesday, Feb. 5, in St James's Cathedral. The organist was Olivier Latry of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral on a first visit to Seattle.
Mass attendance in France may be at an all time low, but the tradition of composition, virtuoso playing, and improvisation flourishes in the organ lofts of French cathedrals and large churches as nowhere else. The great 19th and 20th century French composers most familiar to the musical public - Berlioz, Debussy, and Ravel - showed little interest in the instrument, but since the middle of the nineteenth century numerous French organist-composers have created a unique and fascinating body of music for their instrument.
All the composers on Monsieur Latry's program - Tournemire, Duruflé, Jehan Alain, Langlais, Dupre, and Olivier Messaien - wrote music for other media but with the exception of Messaien and Durufle, whose fine Requiem does occasionally get heard, the rest is little known or performed even in France. (Hands up anyone who has seen, heard, or even heard of Tournemire's 1924 opera La Mort des Dieux, for example.)
All these composers held organist posts in Paris. Their compositions require the huge expressive range and color characteristic of large French organs, as well as a high level of technical and interpretative skill in the player. Both requirements were handsomely met on this occasion. Latry played on the console of the Rosales instrument in St James' east apse, but from this was able also to control the larger Hutchings-Votey organ in the west gallery. Between them these two instruments provided a rich and varied palette of sound, given an attractive patina by the cathedral's excellent acoustics.
His technique is impeccable and equal to the greatest challenges. It was impossible to detect a note out of place in this long and difficult program, played throughout from memory. He delivered Marcel Dupre's notoriously difficult Prelude and Fugue in G minor at a cracking pace without any sign of strain. Still more striking is the expressive quality of his playing. Latry has a remarkable capacity to produce seamless and carefully graduated changes of dynamic and tone, giving the lie to the notion that the organ is an inflexible and inexpressive instrument.
His program illustrated the range and variety of the music composed by the French organ school. Though often based on the Catholic liturgy and influenced by Gregorian chant, it is shot through by other influences such as birdsong and eastern music in Messaien's work. Its wide range of moods encompass Messaien's mystical and visionary abandon in "L'Ascension" and the sombre drama of the two Fantasies by Jehan Alain, the talented composer killed at the age of 29 in the first year of World War II.
The recital began and ended with improvisations. The first was a transcription by Duruflé of an arresting extemporisation by his teacher Tournemire. The second was by Latry himself on two themes selected by Father Michael Ryan of the Cathedral. The themes were handed to him. He read them, spent a minute or two selecting registration, played the two themes, and paused for another minute or so. Then he launched into a ten minute improvisation which sounded like a perfectly finished composition as logical and clearly structured as it was dramatic, varied, and exciting.
An unforgettable end to an extraordinary evening.