Most settings for organ recitals are sacral spaces. There is something about gazing across the splendid interiors of ecclesiastical buildings with light flooding in through stained glass which enhances the aural experience. Whether you are a believer or not, the act of meditation, reflection and contemplation is facilitated here more than in any secular edifice.

Olivier Latry
© William Beaucardet

Yet the organ, this mighty king of instruments, is designed to fill a huge space. With its 7899 pipes, the Royal Festival Hall’s Harrison and Harrison big beast is itself an awe-inspiring piece of architectural majesty. In this recital, Olivier Latry, titulaire at Notre Dame, shifted the programming away from composers traditionally associated with sacred music towards the secular and profane. 

With one exception: Messiaen. His Apparition de l’église éternelle opened proceedings, with stained glass replaced by pink and violet tones illuminating the organ pipes (filtered golds and blues for the three Saint-Saëns extracts together with oranges and burnt sienna for the Franck). In an evening characterised by Latry’s considerable artistry, this proved to be a slight disappointment. True, Messiaen’s vision was always built on massive architectural pillars of sound with commanding pedal notes, and the blazing central climax in C major was ecstatic in its intensity. Yet the huge arc of the music started from too strong an initial dynamic, and with reduced reverberation time consuming the pauses the meditative quality was sometimes lost.

The Liszt Légende that followed moved from a magical voix celeste through rippling arpeggios to a prayer-like supplication in the piccolo range at the end, marked by subtle shifts in tonal colour and diminuendos which allowed the sound almost to dissolve into thin air. This delicate floating sensation carried over into the three extracts from Le Carnaval des animaux. Whereas Aquarium was taken fractionally fast, suggesting that these waters were somewhat animated, the tempo for Le cygnet was just right, the regal swan gliding effortlessly over an expanse of water.

Franck’s Pièce héroïque shows the composer’s debt to Wagner in the harmonic shifts which build from a dark beginning to an imposing statement of the heroic. Latry unfurled all the banners here, aided by powerful swells and a choice of registration emphasising a panoply of festive brass-like colours. This was ideal sonic preparation for the three Wagner works that crowned the second half. 

Can any arrangement for organ outshine the symphonic splendour of the originals? Hardly, but then the organ comes closer than any other instrument to conveying the sweep and spirit of the two overtures performed here. There were lots of reedy notes signalling the rush of wind and surging waves in Der fliegende Holländer, a delicate clarinet voicing for Senta’s ballad, and a headlong rush into a mighty climax. This was the Dutchman’s vessel steering thrillingly into the upper reaches of the Beaufort scale. 

Fire and passion were present in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, with virtuoso playing at a challenging speed as textures piled up, one on another, leaving the blood tingling at this excess of headiness. I found myself even more affected by the sensitivity which Latry brought to Rienzi’s Prayer, with voicing that moved from reedy oboes and bassoons to sustained flutes and high violins at the angelic close.

As an encore, and in a nod to regal celebrations earlier in the month, Latry played one of his own improvisations, extending to almost ten minutes, with God save the King reappearing at different tempos and in different guises. The whole piece was a display vehicle for Latry’s dizzying feats of articulation and rapid changes of register. This was quite remarkable technical wizardry. Merci beaucoup Maître!