By Clare Stevens

Olivier Latry, organist ‘titulaire’ of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, opened his celebrity recital at the Three Choirs Festival with a magisterial performance of J S Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat BWV 552, asserting his command of both organ repertoire, in a work by its greatest exponent, and of Hereford Cathedral’s acclaimed Willis instrument.

The remainder of his published programme consisted of music from Latry’s native France. César Franck was actually born in Belgium but spent most of his his working life in Paris, playing the organ at the Church of St Clothilde and teaching at the Conservatoire. Latry played the second of the three chorals that are regarded as Franck’s masterpiece, treating the ethereal opening in a very reflective fashion before picking up tempo and volume as the piece developed. The performance revealed his mastery of legato playing, with seamless transitions from one phrase to another, and also of registration – the art of choosing which stops to use for each section or phrase of the music. In this and every other piece Latry skilfully exploited the variety of musical colours of the different stops.

The arrangement of Debussy’s ‘Clair de lune’ that followed was magical – the organ with its range of subtle soft sounds and ability to sustain notes indefinitely can represent moonlight so much more effectively than the piano for which this piece was originally written. Delicate dancing motifs at the start of the prelude and fugue by Marcel Dupré were played on similar gentle stops and the whirling fugue allowed Latry to demonstrate his incredible pedal technique – he made its spectacular conclusion look and sound easy as his feet flew up and down the pedalboard.

Works by Jehan Alain and Thierry Escaich brought the sound-world of the recital up to date, leading to one of the improvisations for which Latry is famous. Page-turned Laurence John handed him a sealed envelope which contained a musical theme for him to develop. Unsurprisingly this turned out to be the famous ‘Nimrod’ theme from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. However Latry expanded the musical idea in an utterly Gallic manner. It was an extraordinary experience for those who know the piece well to hear it turned inside out like this, building to a climax on screaming trumpet stops, smothered in repeated note figures, then veiled in mist and incense.

An encore returned us to the disciplined world of Bach, concluding a stunning recital by one of the world’s greatest organists.