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Revolutionary
Cameron Carpenter, organist; Digital Pipe Organ of Trinity Church, New York
Bach, arr. Carpenter: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, DWV 565; Chorale Prelude on Nun komm, der heidenHeiland, BWV 659

Chopin, arr. Carpenter: Etudes, Op. 10, Nos. 1 and 10 ("Revolutionary")
Liszt, arr. Carpenter: Mephisto Waltz No. 1
Marcel Dupré: Prelude and Fugue in B Major, Op. 7, No. 1
Jeanne Demessieux: Octaves, from Six Etudes, Op. 5
Duke Ellington/Carpenter: Solitude
Vladimir Horowitz/Carpenter: Variations on a theme from Bizet's Carmen
Carpenter: Love Song No. 1; Homage to Klaus Kinski
Review By Joe Milicia

  "Flashy" can be considered a complimentary description for New-York-based organist Cameron Carpenter. He is known for giving recitals in flamboyant outfits, including the sequined white t-shirt (well, studded with Swarovsky crystals and designed by himself) featured in a performance viewable on YouTube, Carpenter's website and the DVD-extra packaged with the CD. But his music-making itself provides plenty of flash, whether it's using his feet on the organ pedals for the left-hand cascades of notes in Chopin's "Revolutionary" Etude or adding sound effects to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor that might have made Virgil Fox, or at least Leopold Stokowski, blush. Carpenter — who has performed his own arrangement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony for organ solo — is unquestionably a virtuoso, though the CD at hand is bound to provoke extreme reactions.

The disc plunges us at once into the spectacle of the "Revolutionary" Etude, followed immediately by what Carpenter dubs his "Evolutionary" arrangement of the Bach Toccata and Fugue. But to hear what he can do with music actually written for a grand (relatively modern) pipe organ one might want to turn first to the pieces by Marcel Dupré and that French organist-composer's pupil Jeanne Demessieux. The latter's Octaves (1944) is an agitated, thunderous piece that must be astounding to hear performed by a great artist on a great organ in a fine acoustical setting. Carpenter gives a ferocious performance, exciting and incisive. I should mention that his recital has been recorded in Wall Street's Trinity Church on their Digital Pipe Organ, which has a console looking quite like a traditional one, as one can see on the DVD, but the sound emanates from amplifiers and speakers. As a non-expert in organ sound, I could not have distinguished this track from a recording of a traditional pipe organ. Nor could I on the Dupré track, though the first passages of the Fugue do feature somewhat unusual registers. This performance too is a joy to hear: Dupré's 1912 work features an exuberant toccata-like Prelude and a Fugue with striking syncopations and unusual harmonies, brought out effectively by Carpenter.

The Bach is another matter. Clearly Carpenter is intending to have fun with the piece — or is, as the Gramophone review puts it, "camping it up." The opening phrases, with his abrupt cutting off of notes normally sustained, along with extremes of pianissimo and fortissimo, seem jokey, whether one enjoys the joke or not. A chime effect at one point is either fresh or vulgar, according to one's taste. I will say that I've never heard the various strands of the fugue more clearly delineated, seeming to float in 3-D between my speakers; but I found some of Carpenter's phrasing, not to mention the little surge in sound at the very end, so annoying that I have no desire to return to this track. Nor do I wish to revisit his performance of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, which seems crass in its circus-organ ripples of sound and other nose-thumbing effects. As a lover of Stokowski's and others' arrangements of Bach for symphony orchestra, not to mention Vladimir Horowitz's extravagant performance of the Liszt with embellishments, I'm far from a purist; but what some may hear as Cameron's break from stuffy old traditions I'm hearing as a trivializing of the music. Still, Horowitz's Carmen Variations (on the "Gypsy Song") is essentially a party piece, and I thoroughly enjoyed Carpenter's showy rendition.

It's exciting as well to hear the organ thundering away at Chopin's "Revolutionary" Etude — though a re-statement of the main theme late in the piece sounds circus-like too. By way of contrast (presumably not by way of apology), Carpenter does offer calmer works by both Bach and Chopin on this recital. I found his Bach Chorale Prelude tastefully registered but somewhat plodding, and the Chopin Op. 10, No. 1 Etude dreamy but almost soporific with its long-sustained notes against quietly rippling arpeggios.

Venturing into pop territory, Carpenter offers a version of Duke Ellington's Solitude that is equally likely to delight or infuriate listeners. Playing for the most part very quietly and in a style of free improvisation (some might call it noodling), he includes or, should we say, "samples" bits of Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" (and according to the Gramophone review, some Percy Grainger too). This is another track I will want to skip over.

Finally, Carpenter offers two works of his own. With no information on either piece provided by the CD booklet, I can at least say that Love Song No. 1 sounds not like a "song" but a very free improvisation, with an unexpected waltz passage partway through and a very quiet close. Homage to Klaus Kinski seems to be a set of variations on the opening theme, with an overall mood of menace, ending in a crazy sputtering outburst. It seems a suitable portrait of the German actor's signature roles of the conquistador Aguirre and Nosferatu. Both pieces merit repeated listenings, and the Kinski piece in particular could make a thrilling impression at a live concert. On CD, as with the Bach Toccata and Fugue, the separate voices are heard in very distinct stereo locations, perhaps a feature of the digital organ and/or the acoustical properties of Trinity Church , in contrast to the sonic spread of some traditional pipe organs.

Whatever mixed feelings one may have about Carpenter's interpretations/arrangements, there can be no controversy about Telarc's vivid, even sensational sound (which I heard on conventional stereo speakers). Their booklet offers an interview between Carpenter and Greg Sandow but little specifically about the music or arrangements. However, the 18-minute DVD is a welcome bonus, allowing us to see not only the artist's footwork on the "Revolutionary" Etude, but performances of the Bach Toccata and Fugue and the Carmen Variations, and to hear a brief, improvised "Comic Fugue" over the end credits.

 

 

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