Müpa, Budapest’s magnificent Palace of Arts, buzzed all last weekend with enthusiastic audiences attending a mini-festival to celebrate ten years since the installation of the organ in its concert hall. The grand finale was as spectacular a musical event as you could wish for. Assisted by the admirable Cantabile Regensburg vocal group, two of Paris’s finest organists cooked up musical delicacies old and new, composed and improvised, serious and funny. All present on stage were projected on to large screens hanging on either side of the hall. A packed house thrilled to the combination, cheering to the rafters and provoking a weighty encore despite the late hour.

Olivier Latry and Philippe Lefebvre © János Posztós, Müpa Budapest
Olivier Latry and Philippe Lefebvre
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Both Olivier Latry and Philippe Lefebvre are world-famous improvisers. They took the platform in turn, now playing repertoire and now improvising, until the final item of the concert, which was an improbable – but remarkable – sharing of the console in a joint improvisation.

Alternatim playing, the organ improvising between verses of a psalm or hymn, is one of the bedrocks of French liturgical music. To illustrate this tradition, Latry joined the sweet-toned singers of Cantabile Regensburg to interpolate his nuanced musical language between verses of Praetorius’s Salve regina. Lefebvre set the scene with a Grand Dialogue by Bach’s contemporary and sometime rival, Louis Marchand, in which the reeds of the POM/Mühleisen organ organ snarled richly around the auditorium. Lefebvre returned to end the first half with Maurice Duruflé’s Prélude, Adagio et variations sur le Veni creator, one of the longer and more poetic organ works of the composer’s all-too-scant surviving output. Lefebvre’s interpretation, though fluent, left something to be desired in expressivity and élan.

 The same could not be said of the second half’s first piece, César Franck’s Choral no. 3 in A minor. This could lay claim to being the most iconic work of the French Romantic organ school. It was given a definitive performance by Latry, who combined lyricism with rhythmic dynamism to illuminate both the structure and the direction of the music. One audience member was heard to comment that this performance alone made the expense of a trip to Budapest worthwhile. Next up, it was Lefebvre to give us his own highly individual musical language. Between Duruflé’s exquisite Quatre motets, stylishly sung by Cantabile Regensburg, he improvised links which took up the plainchant of the preceding motet, to be delicately and fascinatingly transformed before leading into the following chant’s incipit. The juxtaposition created an atmosphere redolent of mystical liturgy at its best.

We could see that a set of variations by Thierry Escaich, which Latry returned to play, was as fiendishly difficult as it sounded, thanks to the close-ups on the video screens. It served as a slightly acerbic musical sorbet before the fun commenced. Müpa Orgona10 curator and resident organist Laszlo Fassang threw down the gauntlet of the Seikilos epitaph, the oldest surviving musical composition, including notation, in the world, played on the little handpumped copy of a 3rd-century Roman organ at stage left. Both Latry and Lefebvre gleefully took up the challenge, miraculously building power and thematic transformation through some twenty minutes of joint improvising. He who began at treble, slid down towards bass, as he who began at bass climbed off the stool and ran around to take over at the treble. This double-act, forged over years of sharing the same liturgical space, showed itself to be not only musically fruitful, but also evidently congenial to both, as motifs and textures bounced back and forth and dynamic ranges were intuitively agreed and executed. Suddenly they appeared to disagree and a gallic shrug of shoulders saw Latry walk off... only for Lefebvre also to quit the bench, leaving notes still sounding. A circus act, developed around a switch enabling notes to sustain automatically for tuning purposes! We loved it, and so did they, building from that point to an ecstatic conclusion of stabbing chords which miraculously concurred in splendidly dissonant harmony. Huzza! Chapeau, messieurs!

 Inevitably the two maestros were called back to give us more of the same. Nobody rushed away to catch a tram, or beat the car park queue. Such was the joy of the occasion, the conclusion of a weekend of inspirational programming and performance, accompanied by exhibitions of organ building and even a couple of consoles for us all to try, that the late hour seemed to bother no-one.

Müpa succeeded in attracting thousands to hear its organ being celebrated. Not all can have been organists or organ fanciers. There’s a useful lesson to be learned there by many international concert managers.

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