Latry, Bach, and Notre-Dame
On The Bach Hour, Olivier Latry talks about the devastating 2019 fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, where he's been an organist since 1985, and performs Bach's music in one of the last recordings made before the fire.
On the program:
Trio Sonata in C, BWV 529 - Isabelle Faust and Bernhard Forck, violins; Jan Freiheit, cello; Raphael Alpermann, harpsichord
Cantata BWV 125 Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (translation) - Sarah Wagener, soprano; Benno Schachtner, alto; Sebastian Kohlhepp, tenor; Thomas E. Bauer, bass; Chorus Musicus of Cologne and Das Neue Orchester, Christoph Spering, conductor
Fugue in G minor, BWV 578, "Little" - Olivier Latry, organ (Cavaillé-Coll organ at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris)
Piece d'orgue, BWV 572 - Olivier Latry, organ (Cavaillé-Coll organ at Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris)
Brian McCreath: This is the only organ piece J.S. Bach named with a French title.
The Pièce d’orgue - also known as the Fantasy - in G major is unlike any other piece the composer wrote for his favorite instrument, and not only because of that title. And this performance of the piece is also unlike any other. It’s part of the last recording made at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris before the disastrous fire of April 2019.
Olivier Latry is the organist at the console, and he joins me to share the story of this recording, as well as his thoughts about - and affection for - Notre-Dame Cathedral, coming up on The Bach Hour.
Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. The heartbreaking fire that consumed Notre-Dame Cathedral is an indelible memory for anyone who caught sight of it, whether on television, on the web, or, most certainly, in person. Now imagine being someone whose livelihood - not just financially, but also vocationally, and even artistically, was rooted in that building. Devastating doesn’t even begin to describe it. But one of the people you’d be thinking of is Olivier Latry, one of three titular organists at that landmark house of worship. And you’ll hear from Olivier Latry, both in words and in Bach’s music, later in the hour.
Also coming up is Bach’s Cantata No. 125, Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, or “With peace and joy I depart.” And if you’d like to see a translation of the text for that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.
First, though, as we look forward to Bach’s organ music as channeled through a remarkable instrument, here is a piece the composer originally wrote for organ, now channeled through a baroque orchestra. Violinists Isabelle Faust and Bernhard Forck, cellist Jan Freiheit, and harpsichordist Raphael Alpermann perform the Trio Sonata in C, here on The Bach Hour.
Brian McCreath: Bach’s Trio Sonata in C, originally written for the pipe organ and here performed by violinists Isabelle Faust and Bernhard Forck, cellist Jan Freiheit, and harpsichordist Raphael Alpermann.
I’m Brian McCreath, with The Bach Hour, from 99-5 WCRB.
Bach’s Cantata 125, Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, or “With peace and joy I depart,” written for the Feast of the Purification of Mary, is a piece inspired by the story of Simeon in the Gospel of Luke. Simeon is an old man, “just and devout,” as described in the Bible, who, upon encountering the barely five-week-old Jesus, instantly recognizes the child as the Divine. In that moment, Simeon is then ready to give up earthly life.To depict that story, Bach builds the cantata on Martin Luther’s hymn setting of the “Song of Simeon,” or Nunc dimittis. It starts with a darkly beautiful choral movement on a text that translates in part, as “In peace and joy, I depart … As God has promised me, death has become my sleep.”
Then the alto soloist reinforces the message of the opening – that through a broken body, the believer looks with hope to the Divine – singing that, “Even if my body’s frame be destroyed, my heart and hope will not fall.
And with so much focus on the pain of life so far, you might feel the same as composer John Harbison, who wrote that, at this point, “This cantata needs rescue.” The rescue arrives first through shadows, in a bass aria with interjections from Luther’s chorale tune. And then through a duet for the tenor and bass soloists that, to quote Harbison once again, is a comet of a piece, translating as, “An unfathomable light fills the entire orb of the earth.”
Remember, you can find Pamela Dellal’s translation of the text of this piece for Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you start at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org. Here is the Cantata No. 125, featuring soprano Sarah Wagener, alto Benno Schachtner, tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp, and bass Thomas E. Bauer. Christoph Spering leads Chorus Musicus of Cologne and Das Neue Orchester, here on The Bach Hour.
Bach’s Cantata No. 125, Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, or “With peace and joy I depart,” in a performance featuring Chorus Musicus of Cologne and Das Neue Orchester, along with soprano Sarah Wagener, alto Benno Schachtner, tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp, and bass Thomas E. Bauer, all led by Christoph Spering.
When Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire in April of 2019, the gut-punch of what might be lost was felt around the world. And part of what might be lost was the massive and glorious pipe organ, built by Cavaillé-Coll, and played regularly by organist Olivier Latry. As it turns out, the organ wasn’t completely lost in the fire. In fact, as Olivier Latry told me when he visited Boston, one of the most terrifying moments of the fire actually saved it.
Olivier Latry: The fact that the spire fell down in the cathedral, made a big opening, and then the heats just went out of the cathedral. Otherwise the organ would have, you know, every pipe would have just collapsed on themselves because of the heat.
Brian McCreath: This is amazing because the spire falling was the moment that all of us watching from afar felt the worst about this whole disaster. It just, it was unbelievable. But it's so nice to hear there is something good about the spire falling that in a way, it saved the organ.
Olivier Latry: It saved many things. The cathedral, not only the organ, I think, because what would happen, for example, the heat could have destroyed the paintings and everything.
Brian McCreath: Whether you look at it as a simple fortunate accident of the physics of fire or an outright miracle, the fact that so many artifacts survived the fire is good news. And as Paris works to preserve the building - and the organ that still resides within it - Olivier Latry has the distinction of having made the last recording at Notre-Dame before that fire. Here is part of it. This is the “Little” Fugue in G minor, here on The Bach Hour.
Brian McCreath: That’s J.S. Bach’s Fugue in G minor, known as the “Little” Fugue, performed at Notre-Dame Cathedral by organist Olivier Latry. It’s part of a recording called "Bach to the Future," and you can see a video that was made in conjunction with the recording when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.
The instrument at Notre-Dame has over 8,000 pipes, with parts of it dating back to the 1730’s, and most of it built in the 19th century by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. And as Olivier Latry told me, the music on this All-Bach recording is, in some ways, far from what Cavaillé-Coll had in mind when he built it.
Olivier Latry: For me, the organ of Notre-Dame was something else. It was an organ to play Widor, Franck, Messiaen, all of that. But no Bach. And then after some years I thought, well, maybe if we think back in another way, a little bit like transcription, you know, because when we play, for example, Bach on the piano, it's not a harpsichord. And what I hate is hearing the piano played like a harpsichord. If we are on the piano, we have to use the piano with everything. You know, there are two ways in that case. The one would be Glenn Gould and the other people. And the other way would be Cyprien Katsaris, who uses everything on the piano. You know, you have octets, you have other things, etcetera. And then we we hear piano. And I think the music works better that way on the piano than just making a harpsichord, if you want to have the sound of the harpsichord while playing on the piano, just go on the harpsichord. So it's the same for Notre-Dame. So if we play the music by Bach there, then in that case we have to go on the way of the organ. So with all the possibilities and this is what I tried to do.
Brian McCreath: And you can hear much more from Olivier Latry at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org. When you listen, you’ll hear what he learned from Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and the hidden message of the Passacaglia in C minor. You’ll also learn that the Pièce d’orgue reflects French musical values in more than just its name. And here is that very work. Olivier Latry is the organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral, here on The Bach Hour.
Brian McCreath: Bach’s Pièce d’orgue, sometimes called the Fantasy in G major, in a performance like no other. Olivier Latry was the organist at the Cavaillé-Coll instrument at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, part of the last recording made in that space before the devastating fire of 2019. It’s a recording that Latry had to make in the depths of night time just to avoid noise from the outside and the constant visits of tourists and worshippers. And remember, you can hear more from my conversation with Olivier Latry at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.
Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.
Hear Olivier Latry talk with host Brian McCreath about Notre-Dame Cathedral, the status of the organ following the 2019 fire, and how he changed his mind about playing Bach's music on that instrument, and see transcript below):
TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH OLIVIER LATRY:
Brian McCreath: Let’s talk about your main home for your art, and that’s the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. Tragically, a cathedral that had a disaster earlier this year, and I don’t think we need to review the disaster itself. I won’t ask you what you must have felt as this was unfolding before your eyes, wherever you were – I’m sure it must have been gut-wrenching. But tell me about the state of the organ, what you learned after the fire, and what’s the way forward for the instrument in Notre Dame, and for the cathedral itself?
Olivier Latry: [0:34] Of course I was very happy when I heard the next day that the organ was saved. The manager of Notre-Dame went to the organ loft and told me, “Well, everything seems OK – there’s a bit of water in the organ loft, but nothing in the organ. All the pipes are fine. There is a lot of dust, of course, but nothing else.” And that was really a miracle. And, in fact, the miracle is not for the organ, but also for the altar, and for the statue of the virgin. All the liturgical things of the cathedral are just saved!
BM: [1:07] Oh, wow …
OL: [1:08] So – which is really incredible. And I think, from my point of view – in fact, we discussed of course with the architect of the cathedral the fact that the spire fell down in the cathedral, made a big opening and then the heat just went out of the cathedral. Otherwise, the organ would have, you know, every pipe would have just collapsed on themselves because of the heat.
BM: [1:33] This is amazing because the spire falling was the moment that all of us watching from afar felt the worst about this whole disaster. It just … it was unbelievable. But it’s so nice to hear there was something good about the spire falling – that in a way it saved the organ!
OL: [1:50] It saved many things in the cathedral, not only the organ, I think. Because what would happen for the, uh – for example the heat could have destroyed the paintings and everything. So, no, all of that is just saved, and we are of course very pleased. So now the problem is that the cathedral is not secure yet, and it might take, you know, one year, more or less, to secure everything. Which means that the vault can still fall down, even now, and even in six months, we don’t know. And it takes time to secure everything because they put a big piece of wood everywhere, you know just to support the arch for example – they will put a roof above the cathedral and just below the vault just to be sure to control, to restore, to repair, to analyze the stones … so that takes a long time. And the most [important] thing now is also to remove the scaffolding, which is in the middle of the cathedral and which was supposed to be used for the restoration of the spire. And the problem is that scaffolding just burned, and all the pieces of metal are just joined together. So, it’s a bit like a Mikado, you know – when you play Mikado you don’t have to touch something, otherwise everything just collapses, and it could be the same thing for that. And if the scaffolding just collapses, also the vault and the stones, everything at that place could collapse also. So, they have to be very careful.
About the organ – the organ is safe, as I said, but full of dust. And the problem is that we cannot do anything now in the organ before the cathedral is secured. And the problem is that it already suffered the fire in some way, also the heat last summer, which was enormous in Paris. Then also, it had a winter, and maybe another heat next summer before we remove the organ. And so I don’t know how we’ll find the organ afterwards, because in fact, for the moment, the dust which is on the pipes is still dry. But if it becomes wet, then it will be fixed, and what can we do? So it will be a big disaster of all the pipes. And so the organ might not sound the same at all, so we are very, very anxious about that.
BM: [4:34] Wow, still more reason to hope and keep our thoughts on this instrument, and really the entire cathedral. It’s such an amazing landmark that so many people are so touched by. The good news, of what little good news there might be in relation to that – nothing could make up for it – but you did record this recording of Bach’s music before the disaster. I think, as I understand it, it’s the last recording made of the organ in Notre Dame, is that right?
OL: [5:00] Yes, right, it is not only the last recording, but also the last video that we made also to promote the recording, which you can find on YouTube, which is called “Back to the Future”–with the Toccata in d minor, and with a lot of sound effects and image effects …
BM: [5:22] It’s an amazing video – it’s great.
OL: [5:25] Thank you! So, it shows the cathedral really in its beauty just a few months before the fire.
BM: [5:34] Yeah. Well, tell me about the decision even to record Bach, which, of course you played Bach probably since the moment you stepped up to an organ console – I mean I can’t imagine that any organist doesn’t kind of start with Bach in some sense. But on this particular organ, this amazing Cavaillé-Coll organ, it’s in no way what Bach would have thought of as an organ, but tell me about your decision, and what you knew this organ could give to this music.
OL: [6:03] In fact, at the beginning when I was appointed, I thought that this organ was not suitable to play Bach on, you know, I was in the way of the politically, musicologically informed (laughs) if you know what I mean. And, in fact, I played like this, and for me the organ of Notre Dame was something else – it was an organ to play Vierne, Widor, Franck, Messiaen, all of that. But no Bach. And then after some years I thought, well, maybe if we think Bach in another way – maybe like transcriptions, you know? Because when we play for example Bach on a piano, it’s not a harpsichord. And what I hate is hearing the piano played like a harpsichord. If we are on a piano, we have to use the piano with everything, you know? There are two ways in that case: One would be Glenn Gould (and other people); and the other way would be Cyprien Katsaris, who uses everything on the piano, you know – you have octaves, you have things, he adds chords you know, and then we hear piano. I think the music works better that way on the piano than just making a harpsichord. If you want to have the sound of the harpsichord, why play on the piano? Just go on the harpsichord! So it is the same for Notre Dame. So if we play the music by Bach there, then in that place we have to go on the way of the organ, with all the possibilities, and this is what I try to do.
BM: [7:39] Yeah, and so that must have led to a lot of thinking about what pieces would actually work; what pieces really do translate? Because anyone who sits at the piano (like Cyprien Katsaris, which I’m glad you mentioned him, what an amazing pianist), they’re not just taking any piece by Bach to play it, um, they’re thinking through what’s really going to work – how will they pull out the possibilities of this instrument? So tell me a little bit about your sifting through the immense catalog of Bach’s works to choose the ten or so that are on the recording.
OL: [8:08] Yes, in fact it was very difficult to make a choice, because there are a lot of pieces that do not work on that purpose. But in fact, we have this big instrument which is French in all ways – you know, a French sound, French color, French atmosphere, everything. So, and not polyphonic at all, so for the music by Bach, it’s difficult! And above there is also the acoustic of the cathedral, with seven seconds of reverberation, and so it’s not possible to make something too polyphonic. Or, we have to adjust, as I made in the ricercare, from the Musical Offering, I just tried to isolate voices, or sometimes I played in four manuals just to be sure to hear everything. And it works because the piece is not that fast. With a fugue, for example, like the e minor or I don’t know, another, it would not have worked. So I had to be very, very careful to choose both pieces. So I would say that what works in Notre Dame is everything which is more going on the harmonic way, for example the Pièce d’orgue; Passacaille in some way; some chorales like Herzlich tut mich verlangen, it works perfectly. So I really tried to go in that direction, and of course, we could not avoid the polyphony and to make that working, like in the first ricercare, maybe also in the d minor fugue, small fugue, I asked the sound engineer to change the position on the mics. And in fact we had different locations, and that helped to have another sound depending on the pieces, and it works because we can have something more detailed, something with the space of Notre Dame.
BM: [10:12] That’s great. I have to say that one of the things that I like about this recording is that you might look at it and say, “Ah, the Cathedral organ in Notre-Dame, this will be magnificent,” and the first thing you hear is the ricercare, and it’s very simple, and I love that you did that as the first track because you expect maybe to be blown away at first, and no, you start out very simple, and it kind of grows from there. But you mentioned the Pièce d’orgue and this is, I think I’m right, in this is the one piece that Bach wrote that he gave a French title to. He wasn’t in the habit of giving French titles – is there some French about the Pièce d’orgue?
OL: [10:47] Yeah, everything is French there.
BM: [10:49] How so?
OL: [10:50] Because, in fact, especially the harmony in the middle part, and also this aspect of something sounding like a French plein jeu, which is a registration, a mélange for the organ, which was very popular in the 17th and 18th century. All the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus, were starting with the plein jeu, and that was something really specific to the organ. And this is really something in relation with that piece, the Pièce d’orgue. So I started with the plein jeu and of course it grows up, like the organ of Notre-Dame can do.
BM: [11:30] Well, when you talk about the polyphony, and defining the polyphony In the sound and how some pieces may not look at that, one of the things that struck me listening to the Pièce d’orgue was that there are so many registers, that you end up using those to clarify the opening up, especially in that middle section, it just grows and grows, and when you think it can’t grow any further, it grows some more, because you’re adding these layers to it, and in a way, compared to a North German organ that Bach would have played, in a way it actually offers more clarity to it.
OL: [12:08] Well, thank you! I don’t know, it’s another world. With the same music, but another world. And, in fact, what I wanted to do is just to make things – every part – clear, but not having something too evident, you know? So, it took me a lot of time to make the registrations. There are a lot of combinations, registrations, etc., but we cannot hear maybe half of them just because it’s so subtle, you know, just to hear something and then not anymore, etc. etc. etc. And for me it’s very important that the organ reacts, especially that kind of organ, like an orchestra.
BM: [12:53] Yeah, yeah. Well, speaking of that, I notice in what you wrote about this recording that: a) you hadn’t recorded the Toccata and Fugue in d minor, so that’s kind of exciting – this iconic organ piece and now you’ve recorded it. But to do it, you actually went to Stokowski’s orchestration and looked at that. What did you learn from Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral version of this piece that you then carried to Notre-Dame with you?
OL: [13:15] Freedom! That’s the most important thing, because you know I think it’s important we are educated, especially organists, are educated to do what is current, what is as I said politically, historically informed, but that kind of playing has just changed in five years, or maybe two years, I don’t know. So when we look at how we played Bach 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 40 years ago, it’s totally different. So what will be the next ten years? So in that case I think we will go back to the spirit of the music, if we just listen, have this freedom, and try to make the connection with the instrument, the music, the interpreter, the space, etc.
BM: [14:02] Then the other piece that I notice in what you’ve written – I was really fascinated by this, and I kind of feel like I want to look into it even more – but you mention one of the world’s most famous organists, Marie-Claire Alain, and what she found in the Passacaglia in C minor, and explain a little about what it was that she found embedded in there and how that also affected the way that you approached this in the cathedral.
OL: [14:26] Well, in fact, there are many analyses of this passacaille. Marie-Claire made an analysis where she made a connection between the chorale from the Orgelbüchlein and from part of the passacaille, and she just found that in fact the passacaille just described the life of the Christ – going from the birth, and then going to the cross, etc., and then the resurrection, and then etc. etc. etc. And in fact, the same melodic lines or symbols are used in both parts of the passacaille and some chorales, so it’s very clear. And I would go even further, in fact, that for me this passacaille would be an evocation of the Credo. Because in fact, you have in the Credo, also, the life of the Christ on the first part….
BM: [15:28] And this is the part of a mass that in which a believer states their belief and everything behind their belief.
OL: [15:34] Yes, exactly. And then at the end it says that Christ will come back just to judge the dead and the live people, and then, etc. and that his reign will be there forever. And then you have the fugue of the passacaille just coming there at that point, and it’s clear, it’s absolutely clear …
BM: [15:55] And so ... the fugue is the symbol of eternity –
OL: [15:58] Yes.
BM: [15:59] Wow! Okay! So tell me a little bit about how that translates into what you did with the organ in Notre-Dame to bring all that to life? Is it a matter of registrations for each of those moments of Christ’s life, or each of the moments of the Orgelbüchlein, or is there some other way that you outlined this in sound?
OL: [16:19] Yes, it’s everything – of course the symbol is very important, but first the music, what the music has to tell us. When we have, for example, six voices or something like this, or eight, or sometimes you just have three, and then we have – or two, or one – of course we want, have to use the same registration, and this is what I try to do, just to go really in the way of the music, beside the symbols.
BM: [16:50] Well, Olivier Latry, it’s fascinating to talk to you about all of this, I feel like I could talk to you all day! But I do appreciate your time today, and it’s great to have you back here in Boston. Thank you very much.
OL: [17:00] Thank you!