Paris in the first half of the 20th century -- at least up to 1940, when the Nazis invaded -- was indeed the city of light. The wattage of its (and its emigre) artists, writers, musicians and philosophers must have seemed downright blinding. Debussy, Stravinsky and Satie, with help from their friends, reinvented music; Gertrude Stein and Proust had their way with language; Picasso and Duchamp left enough work and ideas in the visual arts to keep us occupied for ages.
Clarity, brilliance, insight, endless innovation and deep daring were the air they all breathed. But meanwhile, in the dark, musty, claustrophobic, cavernous Gothic corners of Notre Dame lurked Tournemire, Durufle, Alain, Langlais and Dupre -- the organ oddballs. Melodramatic musical Quasimodos, these organist-composers existed in an eerie, incense-perfumed world of their own.
In the first half of his recital Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Olivier Latry, the current "titular" organist of Notre Dame, brought out a few of their pieces for examination, like misshapen specimens. Such works do not exude a sense of health but rather seem, with their purplish hues, the musical equivalent of decay.
The works were all short and, in a ghoulish kind of way, fascinating. But their real purpose was to set the stage for Messiaen's "L'Ascension." Written in 1933, it was the first important work by the influential French composer whose centenary is being celebrated this season. To discover Messiaen blooming forth in bliss from this peculiar organ crowd -- which included his teachers, fellow students and influences -- is to witness a kind of musical miracle.
Latry is a brilliant player. A slight man, he looks as Proust might have looked had he been an organist. Technically and interpretively, Latry embodies the best aspects of French music-making. He thinks linearly, illuminating each contrapuntal line. He produced vivid, complex colors from the Disney organ that sounded unlike any I'd heard before. His rhythms had the sharpest edge obtainable from an elephant of an instrument. His feet on the pedals were as fleet as his fingers on the keys. He played even the most drippingly Romantic music without sentimentality.
All of those qualities made the concert's first half intriguing and "L'Ascension" arresting. The best -- and strangest -- music early on came from Jehan Alain, who was killed at 29 fighting the Germans in 1940. The first of his two preludes that Latry played was announced with a piercing opening, as if heralding some kind of supernatural rite. Pitches clash but ultimately float in such unnatural quiet that the level of discomfort actually rises as the volume decreases.
Elsewhere in the first half, Latry reproduced one of Charles Tournemire's improvisations on a chant tune, fluffed up an airy Maurice Durufle souffle (Scherzo), toyed with Jean Langlais' daft uses of a nasal-sound "mutation" stop ("Nazard") and tore up the keyboard in Marcel Dupre's Prelude and Fugue in G minor.
Messiaen was a far more original and far stranger voice. "L'Ascension" reveals his roots in the French organ school of his time. But from the start, he wrote music meant not to create atmosphere but to transport. Latry, whose recording of Messiaen's complete organ works is in a class of its own, began the four-movement score by producing a scratchy sound from the organ, making the piece sound as though it were coming from an ancient worn 78 recording.
Messiaen's thoughts, as always, gravitated toward joy, the soul transported to heaven. As the scratches evaporate, the music rises to majestic, exciting and ultimately ethereal realms. Latry's performance was out-and-out French -- ecstatic and intelligent at the same time.
Another strange thing about organists, and especially the French, is that they still improvise. After "L'Ascension," Latry was handed two Messiaen themes selected by a fellow organist. The first was jagged; the second, flowing. The nearly 14-minute improvisation was extraordinary, approaching the Coltrane-esque. For the fast part, the blastoff, Latry hammered with controlled abandon. For the slow part, he soared through space. The return to Earth was a crashing climax that shook the floor.
The encore was "Carillon de Westminster" by Louis Vierne. A silly set of variations -- sort of Quasimodo visits Big Ben -- it was nonetheless wonderfully played and made a wonderful sound.