At the White Light Festival, Olivier Latry Reveals Messiaen’s Core

Messiaen: Olivier Latry (organ), Alice Tully Hall, New York City, 11.11.2011 (BH)

Messiaen: Apparition de l’église éternelle (1932)
Messiaen: Selections from Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984)
Messiaen: “Le vent de l’Esprit,” from Messe de la Pentecôte (1949-50)
Messiaen: Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace (1960)
Messiaen: “Chants d’oiseaux,” from Livre d’orgue (1951)
Messiaen: Selections from La Nativité du Seigneur (1935)

Any chance to hear Olivier Latry, the organist at Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, can’t be missed – especially when he dwells in the mystical realm of Olivier Messiaen – and here Latry assembled a fleet, 70-minute program using the Kuhn Organ at Alice Tully Hall, as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.

As great as Messiaen is in chamber music (Quatuor de la fin du temps), solo piano (Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus) and orchestral scores (Turangalîla Symphonie), his works for organ seem to come from a unique place in his soul. Latry’s program included samples of Messiaen’s output from throughout his career, starting with the ghostly Apparition de l’église éternelle. Its opening three-note motif (two dissonant chords followed by a consonant one) is repeated, bearing a strangely irresistible attraction, as if one is growing ever closer to an image both ravishing and terrifying.

From Messiaen’s last work, Livre du Saint-Sacrement, Latry chose “Le Dieu cache” (“The Hidden God”) with its contrasting sunny and sanguine colors, and “La manne et le Pain de Vie” (“Manna and the Bread of Life”) with the upper echelons of the keyboard evoking the faint whir of a mosquito. These were followed bu “Le vent de l’Esprit (“Wind of the Spirit”) – the fiery, even violent conclusion to Messe de la Pentecôte.

Birds – figuratively speaking – were everywhere, especially in the quieter, more nasal Verset pour la Fête de la Dédicace (written for students at the Paris Conservatory) and especially in “Chants d’oiseaux,” from Livre d’orgue with its frenzied little whistles. And to conclude, Latry offered two radiant excerpts from La Nativité du Seigneur: “Les anges,” with its rapid-fire motion, and “Dieu parmi nous,” a massive blaze that grows more intense as it progresses. Throughout the entire evening – a sort of “Messiaen Pictures at an Exhibition” – Latry’s rhythmic acuity and control of color were nothing less than extraordinary.

Despite a trickle of non-believers to the exits during the evening (and one notably loud complainant near the end), Latry graciously offered an encore from Livre du Saint Sacrement, “Prière après la communion,” its gentle warbling in stark contrast to some of the monolithic blocks of sound that preceded it.

Bruce Hodges