New Zealand Organ Conference
Cortège et litanie (Dupré), Petite rhapsodie improvisée (Tournemire – scored by Duruflé), Two parts of L’ascension (Messiaen), Feux follets and Carillon de Westminster (Vierne) and Le sacre du printemps (Stravinsky – arr. four hands)
Olivier Latry and Shin-Young Lee – organists
Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington
Sunday 3 June, 3pm
For those, like me, who missed the NZSO concert on Friday where Olivier Latry played Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, this recital was pretty good compensation.
Latry is one of the three organists at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (the position at French churches is known as a titulaire). Thus he’s one of the very finest organists now alive. Such is his fame that not only was the NZSO concert a full house, but the Anglican Cathedral too was well filled.
One hears occasionally, from those more technically knowledgeable than I am, denigrating remarks about the character of the cathedral organ; perhaps from those for whom music stops more or less with J S Bach.
But for those who have listened to organ music, as music, and not as some sort of rarified and recondite technical practice, organ music runs through the musical experience of virtually every country touched by the traditions of western music, and through every era, though often carried by composers who did not work much in other spheres.
After the great baroque era dominated by Bach, the school of organ composition that seems to me, and some others, to be of great importance and delight is the French school inspired by César Franck.
Latry’s recital celebrated that; and even the evident intrusion of an arrangement of a ballet score by a Russian composer, could be seen as falling in the tradition of organ composition and organ building that was developed in France.
One of the problems of the organ repertoire is that many, most, of the names are not those of the greatest composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Some rate, like Liszt, Franck himself, Saint-Saëns or Messiaen, as respectable 1st division composers of orchestral, choral or chamber music and some, enjoy a slightly enigmatic place in the pantheon.
Marcel Dupré was more famous as a performer than a composer, though he’d been one of the more brilliant winners of the Prix de Rome. He composed in the tradition set by Franck and Widor rather than in the impressionist or tonally ambiguous character of those who followed Vierne. He succeeded Widor at the great church of Saint-Sulpice.
The Cortège et litanie is one of his most popular pieces, opening prayerfully and building impressively as the Cortège emerges grandly (some hear a Russian influence from his friend Glazunov) with its confident theme that corrects the impression of fluttering mysticism in the Litanie. Its performance lifted it from perhaps second class to music of considerable imagination and emotional honesty.
Charles Tournemire’s improvisation entitled Petite rhapsodie improvisée was recorded as he played it in 1931 on the great Cavaillé-Coll organ at Sainte-Clotilde (Franck’s organ). In 1958 Maurice Duruflé took it down, along with several other pieces by Franck and himself, from that recording and it has now found its way on to You-Tube where you can dial it up.
What we heard on Sunday was a great deal more red-blooded and arresting than the dim and shallow 1931 recording (though it’s enough to vindicate Tournemire’s reputation). It’s a short piece marked by remarkable powers of invention, clearly justifying Tournemire’s fame as an improviser. Played here on an organ capable of great brilliance, Latry’s performance seemed to magnify its musical and colourful inspiration. He found a myriad of fluttering bird-sounds, underpinned by firm pedal notes; if the occasional tremolo didn’t seem very appropriate, the whole performance demonstrated other aspects of this versatile organ and Latry’s way of exploiting it; and it acted as a good link between the Dupré and the two Messiaen pieces that followed.
These were two of the four parts of Messiaen’s L’ascension, first written for orchestra in 1932 and then rewritten for organ a year later, when Messiaen replaced the third part (Alleluia sur la trompette, alleluia sur la cymbale) with Transports de joie d’une âme devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienne.
The first part played was Section II, Alleluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel, and there is a kind of serenity, but rather strong evidence of a ‘belief’ that is concrete, highly visual and audible, somewhat distant from the feeling inspired by traditional protestant religion.
There are times when I wonder about the immediate recognisability of Messiaen, whether it suggests that he’s merely writing the same stuff over and over, with minor variations.
I was intrigued to know what had led Messiaen to write another Part III and found a recording of the orchestral original. It is quite un-organ-like: exuberant, slightly jazzy, using an orchestra that hints at Ravel, perhaps Roussel or Koechlin.
The organ version of III is also vigorous and assertive, and Latry must have rejoiced in the great trumpet stops that are available on the cathedral organ; certainly, they would have thrilled the audience which could almost see the long horizontal pipes crying out over the left of the Choir. Here was the blazing show-piece of the first half of the concert: great clusters of riotous runs and multi-coloured Messiaenic chords that created a triumphal peroration.
Two pieces by Vierne led to the Stravnisky ballet score which was to end the concert.
Feux follets, Op 53 No 4 and Carillon de Westminster, Op 54 No 6 are two of the 24 Pièces de fantaisie that Vierne wrote to play during a fund-raising tour of the United States in 1927.
These were well-placed as pieces lying somewhere south of Messiaen, and certainly more modest accomplishments than what followed. Latry adorned Feux follets with rare combinations of stops that created hollow sparklings, lightning flashes, a bit like Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or Debussy’s Ce qu’a vu le vent de l’ouest.
The Carillon is one of the organ’s famous showpieces, based on the uninteresting Westminster chimes, but transformed by means of harmonic colouring and surprising stop combinations, a great deal of it the contribution of the performer.
Finally came the one of the most extraordinary exhibitions of the arranger’s imagination and the organist’s (organists’) mastery of an instrument.
But how does this piece by a Russian qualify for this concert of French organ music? Stravinsky had worked in Paris from the time of The Firebird in 1910, and lived there periodically from then on, taking French citizenship finally in 1934; much of his most important music was written for French performance, and the influence of the French cultural aesthetic was as important as that of Russia.
Stravinsky had made a piano four hands arrangement of Le sacre du printemps, so the composer had sanctioned that much tampering with the nature of his work. This was the basis of the performance which then became an exercise in restoring as far as possible, the colours that were in the orchestral original, and that, through the inspired and imaginative choice of registrations, was entirely the work of the players – in this case Latry and his partner (in both senses), Korean organist Shin-Young Lee.
It was strikingly clear from the first notes that the work lent itself uncannily well to an organ arrangement. Perhaps it actually captured the essence of The Rite, a degree of violence in the dehumanising of primitive religious ritual, that allows the music to become even more phenomenal and awful in the hands of a machine with reserves of power that exceeded what any orchestra could create.
The task of making a machine produce from this music, beauty, excitement and awfulness was a supreme challenge and the result was utterly astonishing.
The re-creation of the unearthly introductions to both sections were extraordinarily vivid; what a brilliant transformation of the crunching rhythms of the Dances of the Adolescents, and the furious speed of the Dance of the Earth! (It certainly makes sense to employ four hands on an organ – after all most have multiple manuals – this one four: why leave so much of the keyboards unemployed for most of the time?).
Nevertheless, there were times when, for example, the throbbing beat during the Jeux des cités rivales became too cluttered but the final climax was reached with a power and terror, with triple fortissimo, or more, as the most formidable stops were brought to bear.
The large audience had judged well of the likely overwhelming musical experience to be had in St Paul’s this afternoon, and even their prolonged ovation hardly did the event justice.