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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Cameron Carpenter’s “Revolutionary”

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews Cameron Carpenter’s Revolutionary, a collection of transcriptions by the unorthodox pipe organist.

Cameron Carpenter is a 27-year-old New York organist who looks like a punk rocker.  He probably owns neither a suit nor a set of formals, and even his organ shoes — white, with unusually high heels and ankles — are as wildly unorthodox as his playing.  I was struck by their eerie resemblance to the more sedate but similarly shaped organ shoes of French organist-composer Alexandre Guilmant, who made several tours of the United States in the very early 20th century, toward the end of his life.  Guilmant apparently had no trouble racing all over the pedalboard, the awkward-looking high heels and ankle notwithstanding.  Neither does Carpenter.

Carpenter was initially a student and protégé of Gerre Hancock, former organist and director of music at St. Thomas’ Church in New York City, who proclaimed him a genius and a prodigy.  His concert career began at a point in his life when most organists only dream of such a career.  From the beginning, it was made clear in his publicity material that he is different.  His very first recording, Revolutionary (Telarc 80711), gives more than a taste of how “different” Cameron Carpenter is.

He leads off with his transcription of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Étude — the fast and furious c-minor workout for the left hand that closes the opus 10 book of Études.  In Carpenter’s version, the feet take over the work of the left hand as the left hand doubles the right hand chords.  The pedal technique is assured and nothing is lost — indeed, much is gained — in the way of articulation.  His transcription of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz is revealingly demonic, even more so than the composer’s own piano and orchestral versions.  Also worthy of note are his handling of one of the six études of short-lived French organist-composer Jeanne Demessieux (1921-1968), entitled Octaves, in which rapid octave passages both for the hands and feet are deftly handled.  It is thunderously exciting, ravishing playing.  Carpenter’s transcription of Chopin’s C-major Etude, the first of the opus 10 book of twelve, is somehow at odds with the composer’s piano conception but not unfaithful: quiet but solid chords on lush foundation stops against cascading runs and arpeggiated figures played on very high-pitched mutation stops.  Two of Carpenter’s own compositions are included in the album, his Homage to Klaus Kinski being particularly striking. Among other items on the disc are Carpenter’s transcriptions of Vladimir Horowitz’ paraphrase of themes from Bizet’s Carmen and of Duke Ellington’s Solitude, a very free paraphrase of J.S. Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze.  Carpenter also delivers a high-powered performance of Marcel Dupré’s Prelude and Fugue in B major, the first of the opus 7 set of three such pieces. 

The organ used in the recording is no less remarkable than the man who plays it.  It is a large, all-electronic, all-digital organ built by the New England firm of Marshall and Ogletree.  It was originally supposed to be an interim solution for Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, which had two large Aeolian-Skinner organs fore and aft. These instruments were seriously damaged and rendered unplayable by debris from the infamous events of September 11, 2001.  To make a long story short, the church decided to make this strange and wonderful instrument permanent.  It sounds like an eclectic/Romantic organ of the middle twentieth century, but the instrument’s dynamic range is surely greater than any pipe organ’s.  The combination of vivid sound, superb engineering and truly flexible dynamics and a variety of percussion effects is staggering.  The organ employs a set of sub-woofers invented by Bruce Thigpen, which look like rotary fans whose blades turn slowly over an almost invisible membrane.  For the recording, several additional Thigpen speakers were temporarily installed to accommodate frequencies below even that of the most profound pipe organ basses.  (My own sixteen-inch bass speakers almost said “uncle” at several points.)

Revolutionary is a glimpse of a new way of looking at the organ, a tantalizing cameo of new musical worlds. It is Carpenter’s first album, and dedicated primarily to novelties. Since Carpenter is under contract to Telarc — and a recording contract (almost an extinct species) is a rare plum for any artist, especially an emerging artist, these days — one wonders what he will do next. A video of a recital he did at Trinity Church prior to this recording included the Bach Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541. While the playing was technically secure, Carpenter didn’t seem to be playing the room as much as he was playing the organ. As a consequence, the piece wound up sounding — for the most part — incoherent. (This is a very easy trap for organists to fall into, especially in overly resonant rooms, like large church or cathedral spaces.) The Bach G-major is pre-eminently a piece about repeated notes — true of both the prelude and the fugue — how to articulate them and how to make each member of a chain of repeated notes or repeated chords sound distinct, no matter what the tempo. There is no question that Carpenter has a phenomenal technique, but technique is merely a tool to be put at the service of the music. Those of us old enough to remember the very flamboyant playing of Virgil Fox also recall that his playing of contrapuntal music was marked by a devastating clarity, quite apart from the instrumental and sonic pyrotechnics for which he was justly renowned.