A Fabulous Proms Organ Recital from Olivier Latry

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC PROM 21  – Khachaturian, de Falla, Beethoven, Bach, Gigout, Liszt, Widor, Saint-Saëns plus Improvisation: Olivier Latry (organ). Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.8.2019. (CC)

Olivier Latry (c) Deyan Parouchev

Khachaturian (transc. Kiviniemi)Gayaneh: Sabre Dance
de Falla (transc. Latry)El amor brujo: Ritual Fire Dance
Beethoven – Adagio in F for mechanical clock, WoO 33/1
Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
GigoutAir célèbre de la Pentecôte
Liszt (arr. Guillou) – Prelude and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H
WidorBach’s Momento: No.4, Marche du veilleur de nuit
Saint-Saëns (trans. Lemare) – Danse macabre


The last time I saw Olivier Latry in concert was at the Maison de la Radio France in June 2018 (review); that, too, held an improvisation (that time, on Gounod). Latry is one of three chief organists (a ‘titulaire des grands orgues’) at Notre-Dame in Paris. And so, in the wake of the awful fire earlier this year at Notre-Dame, Latry comes to the Proms in his first appearance here for over a decade to play the 9,997-pipe Henry Willis organ here. The entire programme was given by memory, no small feat given the technical challenges involved (including stops changes). It is on one level a tribute to the art of transcription; but it also celebrates that of inspiration.

As an organ playing friend rightly pointed out to me, placing an organ recital on at 11am on a Sunday morning means by necessity much of the core audience – organists themselves – will be tied up in church services around the country.

Kalevi Kiviniemi (born 1958) offered a tremendous transcription of the famous ‘Sabre Dance’ by Khachaturian. A frequent guest of Latry’s at Notre-Dame, Kiviniemi has produced a virtuoso vehicle that shone, mainly through Latry’s superb rhythmic sense which meant the impetus remained throughout. A kindred spirit, de Falla’s ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ began with what could plausibly be described as a pianissimo ‘hum’. It was initially a tamer performance than the Khachaturian, and the arranger’s working with panels of sound, juxtaposing them suddenly, was most effective. Here the music grows in virtuosity, its end a guaranteed roof-raiser (the very healthy Proms audience reacting appropriately).

Lovely to hear some Beethoven here, a piece written for a ‘mechanical clock’ (a ‘Flötenuhr’). Written in 1799, the melody of the Adagio in F does indeed have a freshness one associates with first period Beethoven (think of the slow movement of the first piano sonata, Op.2/1, for example). Lovely chimes at the end, too.

How many of the large audience came for the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, I wonder? If that was the goal, the prize was magnificent. A different registration for each of the initial statements of the theme. Huge timbral contrasts and a supreme technical command went hand in hand for Latry’s rethinking of the piece, which used the Royal Albert Hall organ to its utmost, a pedal rumbling seeming to come from the very core of the Earth itself. Latry had the ability to present sections as independent entities and yet they were always felt as part of a greater whole. It was, simply, extraordinary.

Difficult to follow that, and opting for the Gigout, Air célèbre de la Pentecôte (after J. S. Bach) made for maximal contrast. The link was Bach of course, here a familiar melody that ‘Mein gläubiges Herz’ from the Cantata BWV 68; given here in the most charming manner conceivable. It was a slender maiden between two Titans, as the Liszt Prelude and Fugue on BACH in the arrangement by Jean Guillou (1930-2019) is a huge undertaking for any organist. Perhaps the proximity of Guillou’s death this year was the catalyst, but it fitted perfectly. Guillou’s idea was to create a ‘syncretic’ version of the score that combines the organ and piano versions. A bit like putting extra cream on your trifle, and then some custard for good measure, perhaps. It is almightily difficult. To be kind to the audience, that might be what occasioned great applause during the course of the piece – Latry held his hand up to bring the attention back to the ongoing music though. The sheer velocity of some of Latry’s fingerwork (in some of the other pieces too) was stunning.

Commissioned by Durand, Bach’s Momento (the title is in English) is a sequence of six paraphrase-transcriptions premiered by Widor himself in June 1925. Bach again is a major factor, providing the building blocks for the music. The ‘Marche du veilleur de nuit’ (March of the Nightwatchman) is again based on music from a Bach Cantata (the famous Wachet auf!). It is harmonically rich, to be sure, but the surprise is the cadence at the end, which is, frankly, just cheeky.

One of the organ’s special effects, a bell, was heard in the Edwin Lamare transcription of Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, a fun and occasionally brazen ride. Comic, even of the fairground, this was simply fun.

And now to that encore, an improvisation on the ‘Hungarian March’ from La damnation de Faust and ‘Un bal’ from the Symphonie fantastique in honour of the 150th anniversary of the death of Berlioz. This brought back not only memories of that Paris concert mentioned above, but also of Wayne Marshall in April this year at the Royal Festival Hall, improvising on submitted themes (review). Latry’s improvisation was fluent and had a definable shape; perhaps inevitably, a vamp-till-ready figure showed up at one point.

One encore, the busy but somehow mysterious Toccata from the Suite gothique (1895) by the tragically short-lived Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897). Quite a morning’s work: a fabulous recital.

Colin Clarke

4 thoughts on “A Fabulous Proms Organ Recital from Olivier Latry”

  1. Is it possible to re-play this concert on catch-up? Thanks for at least a glimpse of this wonderful repertoire by a simply outstanding organist!

    • As all Proms seems to be available to hear again if you look at the BBC Radio 3 website (or Sounds I guess?). S&H

  2. Yes of course! I was scanning for something I would enjoy this afternoon, on my car radio perhaps some heavy rock, a nostalgic 70’s pop track when the radio hit 3. Full decibels of the Fugue with all the different registers blasting out, windows down with a chap in the next car clapping at the end!

  3. I’m a big fan of Latry and was there in the arena. A magnificent performance. Listening to those pieces on the Jupiter organ is a visceral experience. I had goosebumps throughout the performance. I have listened on BBC iPlayer and on good headphones it come across very well. I can understand the applause during the Liszt. It’s not a widely known piece and does have a couple of illusory endings. That’s what makes it so compelling – the contrast between the mighty swell and the subtle calm which follows.


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