The transport strike here in Paris has made concertgoing, like other activities involving travel, considerably more fraught. Buses and trains run haphazardly and, when they stop, resemble wheeled sardine tins—without the orderliness one associates with sardine tins. Already-congested roads are even more crowded with motorbikes and scooters weaving around crawling cars and over crosswalks, darting between startled pedestrians. Taxis are scarce, and trotinnettes, those without flat batteries at least, are the last recourse of the desperate (including this reviewer). As for getting home after the concert . . . it is perhaps not surprising that there are so many empty seats in our concert halls these last few weeks.
But judging from the applause at Radio France on December 18 for Olivier Latry’s recital on the auditorium’s four-manual, eighty-seven-stop Grenzing organ, the travel difficulties were merely a passing annoyance, at least for those who made it. Mr. Latry, the organiste-titulaire at Notre-Dame and one of France’s preeminent organists, played works from the mid-eighteenth century to the present, a splendid tonic to the stress and chaos outside.
Claude Balbastre (1724–99) was one of the great organ virtuosi of eighteenth-century France. His four books of Noëls variés (1770) were extremely popular, so much so that more people crowded into Saint-Roch, where Balbastre was organiste-titulaire, to applaud his performance of the suites than to attend Christmas services—much to the ire of the Archbishop of Paris. Mr. Latry’s performance of one Noël, based on an old Burgundian carol, featured nicely chosen registrations, clear lines, and plenty of charm. César Franck’s (1822–90) ruminative Pastorale, with its dance-like middle and characteristic sliding modulations that never fail to evoke surprise (how did he think of that!), had great immediacy, as did the elfin and scherzo-like Allegro vivace from Louis Vierne’s (1870–1937) D-minor Organ Symphony. Jean-Louis Florentz’s (1947–2004) La Croix du Sud (The Southern Cross) is a kaleidoscopic piece composed in 1999–2000 and demanding spectacular pedal technique—in Mr. Latry’s performance, there were sustained passages of thirty-second or even sixty-fourth notes pedalled with an economy and poise that would have made even Widor take notice. Mr. Latry’s page-turning assistant did a fair amount of multitasking over the piece’s seventeen-minute length by taking care of registration changes and even lending a few fingers when the performer’s own ten fell short of the number required.
The second half started with a rousing Variations sur un vieux Noël by Marcel Dupré (1886–1971). The Variations are exceptionally challenging—Dupré was perhaps the greatest organist of the twentieth century, and he loved showing the audience a good time. Several types of canon appear over the ten variations, each with their own set of demands, and Mr. Latry followed the score’s instruction to be sobrement spectaculaire even through the rip-roaring final. A softly emotional “Nativité” from Jean Langlais’s (1907–91) Trois poèmes évangéliques and a lovely fluttering “Les Anges” from Olivier Messiaen’s (1908–92) La Nativité du Seigneur lowered our collective pulse rate until Mr. Latry’s own spectacular “Improvisation,” which was so well structured that one could be forgiven for doubting the veracity of the title. Two encores followed, the first being the Sinfonia from J. S. Bach’s BWV 29 Cantata (Wir danken dir, Gott). The second, after many curtain calls, was another simple old carol whose theme slowly unfolded in the right hand, accompanied by a hypnotic moto perpetuo figure in the left, getting softer until a final honk in the bass—not so subtly reminding us it was time to face the traffic once more.