A visit to Notre-Dame Cathedral to hear Olivier Latry play the organ at Mass should be a part of everyone’s trip to Paris. The celebrated French organist returned to Washington this week to perform as part of the Georgetown Concert Series at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Tuesday evening. The instrument and space are dwarfed in comparison with the last place I heard him play here, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 2009, but Latry delivered an excellent program centered on his strengths, late Romantic French music and improvisation.
Latry chose registrations carefully, reserving the loudest sounds for the big pieces ending each half, especially the booming finale of Louis Vierne’s Symphony No. 2, preceded by a feather-wisp scherzo movement with swift manual shifts carried off with a Mendelssohnian grin. He drew out reedy sounds for Franck’s overlong “Prière” and used the chimes stop and the zimbelstern for Marcel Dupré’s magnificent “Cortège et Litanie.” Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor was somewhat plain, while Jehan Alain’s frantic “Litanies” and Pierre Cochereau’s “Berceuse à la mémoire de Louis Vierne,” an improvisation transcribed by Frédéric Blanc, were high points.
At the end of the concert, Latry was given the hymn melody “Lasst uns erfreuen” as a basis for improvisation. Over the course of 14 minutes, Latry had the tune appear in the pedals and both hands, transformed into different keys and modes, combined with itself contrapuntally, and paraphrased amid tangles of whirring notes and dissonant harmonies. The tune’s repeated Alleluias, the only part that Rowan Atkinson’s character Mr. Bean could remember in a hilarious sketch, popped out in more and more ecstatic ways. A finger-busting encore, Dupré’s arrangement of the sinfonia from Bach’s cantata “Wir danken dir, Gott,” was icing on the cake.
Downey is a freelance writer.