Cameron Carpenter’s “Revolutionary” CD

So what does one do when one is a twenty-something organist graduate of Juilliard, has already learned all of Bach’s organ works, as well as a lot of other standard repertoire and other goodies such as the almost impossibly difficult Demessieux Six Etudes for Organ? If you’re Cameron Carpenter you set about to re-make the organ as a concert instrument for the 21st century and to market yourself as a rock-star organist bad boy. His debut CD on Telarc, “Revolutionary” is bound to piss a lot of people off. (My hunch proved corrected when I glanced at the buyer comments in the iTunes store for this release. Such hostility, which used to be reserved for kindred spirit renegade organists of an earlier generation such as Virgil Fox and Jean Guillou!) Like Virgil Fox, Cameron plays a “virtual organ” in Trinity Church, Wall Street, in New York, built by Marshall & Ogletree. Since it is based on electronics, it has the capacity to “change its skin” and sometimes sound like a theatre organ, as well as a standard church pipe organ.

The bottom line here is that Cameron Carpenter is immensely talented, but the album is not entirely successful. In fact, the title track, Chopin’s Etude, op. 10, no 12 in C minor, “The Revolutionary,” is for me most dependent on its visual aspect, since he plays the arpeggiated “left hand” part entirely with his feet in the pedals. (Somebody at Telarc must have figured that out as well, because there is a Bonus DVD included with the CD that includes Cameron playing the Chopin Etude.) Unfortunately, it has something of the aspect of an astonishing parlor trick. It’s hard to believe that he’s doing it unless you see it.

Happily, most of the rest of the album is much more successful. For me the high point is Cameron’s transcription of the Liszt “Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (The Dance in the Village Inn)”. He makes the piece his own in his organ “orchestration.” The playing is musical, as well as being technically accomplished.

His performance of the last of the Demessieux Etudes (“Octaves”) makes me wish he would record the whole collection. It is performed “straight” without a lot of registrational hanky-panky. Likewise, his performance of Marcel Dupré’s “Prelude and Fugue in B Major, Op. 7, No. 1” is relatively straightforward.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “Evolutionary” Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, Cameron’s own concoction including every gloss that other transcribers have ever included on Bach’s indestructible warhorse. And I miss the point of the mash-up of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” with Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” in a theatre organ style that would make Radio City Music Hall proud. Bach’s chorale prelude on “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,” BWV 659, is performed almost as if he’s putting us on–after all the hijinks that have preceded this track, he plays in a quasi-historically-informed manner. It is “correct” within an inch of its life. Please, more Liszt!

There are also two of Cameron Carpenter’s own compositions included on the album. The more successful of the two is his “Homage to Klaus Kinski,” with his use of thematic material and the mastery of the colors of the organ. He writes for his own performing skills as well. It probably makes quite an effect in live performance.

The is not a perfect album; there are parts of it that I find self-indulgent and irritating, but that’s okay. I wish that more organists would take these kinds of risks in programming and performing. It’s possible to do that even without having Cameron Carpenter’s amazing technical skills. Organists wonder why the organ is dying; as is evidenced by the audience reaction when I heard Cameron Carpenter perform in Minneapolis this past June, even the organist-centric world is longing for somebody to capture audiences’ attentions and turn the organ into something viable for the future.

As a postscript, I would note that Cameron Carpenter’s effectiveness as a performer depends in large part on a huge organ with all the modern mechanical conveniences (especially a well-developed combination action–pre-sets that can drastically change registrations with a push of a button.) One has to assume that he would not accept an engagement on an organ such as I play every week–35 stops with completely mechanical action and no combination action. How (or could) he modify is performance style to deal with a less elaborate instrument? It is tantalizing to speculate how it would affect his programming.

One presumes that this won’t be Cameron Carpenter’s last CD. At least I hope not.

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