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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Cameron Carpenter’s “Cameron Live!”

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews a new release featuring organist Cameron Carpenter.

CAMERON LIVE! Cameron Carpenter, organist. J.S. BACH: Toccata in F, BWV 540 (performed in the key of F-sharp major); Preludes and Fugues in b minor, BWV 544; in e minor “Wedge”, BWV 548; in a minor, BWV 543; in D, BWV 532 and in G, BWV 541. CARPENTER: Serenade and Fugue on B-A-C-H (2009). Recorded in concert, 21 November 2009, at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in New York City. SHOSTAKOVICH/CARPENTER: Festive Overture, op. 96. SCHUBERT/CARPENTER: Erlkönig. CARPENTER: Three Intermezzi for Cinema Organ: The young boy and the older boy, Clockwatcher and The Rumble (2009). LISZT/CARPENTER: Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses. MOSZKOWSKI/CARPENTER: Étincelles (Sparks), op. 36/6. LISZT/CARPENTER: Au bord d’une source (At the Edge of a Stream) from Années de pélérinage (Third Year: Switzerland). VIERNE: Naiades (Water Nymphs) from Pièces de fantaisie, op. 55. WIDOR: Toccata from Symphony No. 5 in f minor, op. 42/1. CARPENTER: Will o’the Wisp (from Fifteen Inventions on Chopin’s Études [2009]). SOUSA/CARPENTER: The Stars and Stripes Forever. Carpenter performing on a 4-manual Wurlitzer theatre organ. J.S. BACH: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: Prelude and Fugue No. 5 in D, BWV 850. Carpenter performing on an unidentified studio organ. DEBUSSY/CARPENTER: Prélude d’après-midi d’un faune. CARPENTER: Homage to Klaus Kinski, 1926-1991 (2005). MOSZKOWSKI/CARPENTER: Étincelles (op. cit.). BACH: Prelude and Fugue No. 5 in D (WTC I, op. cit.). Carpenter performing on the organ of St. Matthias Church, Berlin, Germany. A brief documentary of the St. Mary the Virgin concert of November 2009 (by Katy Scoggin) is also included on the DVD. Telarc (one CD and one DVD) TEL-31980-00.

That Cameron Carpenter is a genius is something I do not doubt. Genius is born, not made; but it must be molded and developed. Its development is something that never ends. Carpenter’s genius seems to be developing in several different directions, as evidenced in this unique new album which combines an audio recording of a mostly-Bach recital in New York this past November and a DVD mainly devoted to an exploration of the possibilities of a “Mighty Wurlitzer” cinematic organ.

The New York program was given on the recently refurbished organ at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City. Perhaps “refurbished” is not the word: “newly realized” is more appropriate, since the instrument is truly complete after an evolution that goes back nearly seventy-eight years. G. Donald Harrison, the legendary tonal director of the long-since-defunct Boston firm of Aeolian-Skinner, had to bow to budgetary constraints (as he did in his later project for Symphony Hall, Boston) and put his dreams on hold. In the case of the St. Mary organ, the New York firm of Mann and Trupiano have essentially followed Harrison’s plan to include a Bombarde division (mostly harmonic-type reeds and a few foundation stops) and have realized Harrison’s dreams of a classical organ within a largely romantic framework, or vice versa…or both—depending on who is playing it and how he or she uses it. The rich, reverberant acoustics of this Gothic-style church really finish the sound of this organ. The instrument is located high in the rear gallery, with the rebuilt four-manual Aeolian-Skinner console on the lower level. When Mann and Trupiano finished their work, they placed the console on a movable dais in the chancel area—ideal for concerts—but later returned the console to its original location. A deftly re-invented three-manual console, originally made by Cleveland builder Walter Holtkamp, Sr., whose consoles were models of simplicity, is now placed in the chancel area and controls most if not all of the organ. Harrison’s original scheme of a case or façade in the gallery was never realized, so you not only see pipes and swellboxes but some mechanical parts. You can see an earlier form of the instrument in Joseph Blanton’s limited-edition book The Organ in Church Design (1957); the organ as it is today may be seen at Recently, the church has been re-colored in dark hues of blue, which seem to lend an atmosphere of solace and tranquility. Visual considerations aside, the organ and the room make an excellent marriage — and that is what really counts.

It is a wonderwork of an organ. The foundations are sui generis, not necessarily romantic or classical but with an indescribable clarity. The reeds—all varieties of them—speak with an almost unbelievable quickness and precision. It seems as though it would be a dream to play.

I want to take one work first—the Bach G major Prelude and Fugue (BWV 541). The Prelude runs about three pages (depending on which edition you consult) and the Fugue, four. Normally it would take an average of seven to eight minutes to get through the work in performance. Right before the final stretto/coda of the Fugue, there is a wonderful dissonant sonority with a fermata (hold for an indefinite time) over it, giving the organist an opportunity for a cadenza. Mr. Caprenter’s cadenza times out at six minutes forty seconds—longer than the Fugue itself. It seems to have more to do with Mr. Carpenter’s ability to summon sonic pyrotechnics and synthesizer-like phantasmagoria from an organ than with Bach’s subject, or even a player “letting his hair down” and going off the page for a moment or two. Something in the nature of an eingang (i.e., “lead-in”), a free-form flourish for the right hand all over the keyboard, and even a few marks of pedal punctuation, might have been more in proportion with the fugue. This is not a Mozart or Beethoven piano concerto movement, where the soloist can develop the theme or themes, even after the composer has done so — adding flourishes, roulades and even tangential matter (but briefly). This feat of self-indulgence makes the listener forget about the fugue; what is worse, the cadenza dovetails without letup into the final half-dozen or slightly more measures of Bach’s, which sound incoherent. I would have much less of a problem with something like Gidon Kremer did in his first recording (with Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, about thirty years ago) of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, in which he graced the first movement with an almost atonal cadenza by Alfred Schnittke. At least the Schnittke cadenza, while being conspicuously out of style, was in proportion to the length of the movement. At the final notes of the now-no-longer-recognizable-as-Bach fugue, the audience first lustily applauds, then whoops, then whistles—as though it had received some heaven-sent revelation. The interplay between the voices in those final measures is not heard; it is merely a grotesque caricature of the fugue. The piece itself has been sacrificed at the altar of the extemporized cadenza.

In the F-major Toccata (BWV 540), which Mr. Carpenter chooses to play a semitone higher than written (in F-sharp major), there is some marvelous articulation in the two pedal solos. But in the two two-voice canons that precede each pedal solo, pyrotechnics take precedence over music. There are some ingenious crescendi and changes or modifications of color in these canons, and they are done with much panache and were obviously well thought-out; but, at times, the pedal (on a long “organ point”, like a drone) becomes too loud and the left hand is obscured. Sometimes Mr. Carpenter deftly moves to correct this imbalance. Just beyond the second pedal solo begins the development, with further canonic sections in which the contrapuntal textures are sometimes broken up by the intrusion of fistfuls of chords (a toccata is, from its Italian derivation, a “touch piece”)—and these canons are often obscured and the musical lines are indistinct. It is the test of a player’s acumen, whether he is an unabashed red-blooded romantic like Virgil Fox or someone who favors a more by-the-book and no frills but just unruffled, clean and clear playing in the manner of Anton Heiller (not to be confused with academic rigidity), that everything that is on the page gets heard. All of Bach’s music is pre-eminently linear, and every voice and every note counts for something. Part of the genius of the organ is that no two such instruments are alike; furthermore, they make their homes in a wide variety of acoustical environments. A player can color any piece as he pleases, bearing in mind that touch, articulation and tempo are more often than not dictated by the sound of the room. With all this in mind, I felt lost listening to this mix of homophony and counterpoint which often happens in Bach’s larger organ compositions. There was a lot that I wasn’t hearing.

Mr. Carpenter seems to be on firmer ground in the e-minor “Wedge” Prelude and Fugue (BWV 548) which is big and noble if somewhat stentorian in the prelude, with the fugue subject and its exposition delivered in an appropriately scherzo-like manner. The episodic material, with its almost violinistic cascades of sixteenth notes, is clearly and deftly delivered, and there is frank enjoyment of the music. The a-minor Prelude and Fugue (BWV 543) has some unsettling registrational aberrations in the Prelude, beginning the piece on a penny-whistle and ending it dolce, after a few bursts of full organ. The Fugue seems fast at first, but Mr. Carpenter unfolds the straightforward unfolding of the four-voice exposition and its largely three-voice development (including a lengthy hands-only section with some very violinistic writing) with admirable clarity. He brings out the dance-like aspects of this fugue, which is an atmosphere I do not hear many organ players today evoking. The pedal cadenza (by JSB himself) is delivered with great sureness, but the thirty-second note sextuplets at the end are indistinct and blurred. I do not really hear them.

The b-minor Prelude and Fugue (BWV 544) starts off as mincing and effeminate rather than imposing. Here, Carpenter seems to be trying to emphasize the two-voice canons which eventually reveal their importance to the whole design of the Prelude. It is not, gratefully, the travesty that Anthony Newman’s highly disfigured rendering on the pedal harpsichord a generation ago was. The Fugue starts off straightforwardly enough, but once the bass enters (that is, played with the feet), “cute” registration — a comic-sounding short-resonator reed in the pedal — obscures the texture. And then, at the end, after the soprano voice so nobly sings out a major variant of the subject (after the second subject has been introduced almost in something akin to classical sonata form), there is some disturbing pushing of eighth notes as an inverted form of the subject is heard in the bass.

I rejoice when someone plays the pedals as Mr. Carpenter does. He was obviously born with this ability—he is a natural organist. His feet become a third hand and something more, which is the case with any good player. I also rejoice when someone moves in the direction of extricating the organ from its association with the church and placing it closer to the mainstream of music. His natural affinity for the instrument is quite obvious. His stamina and sense of security as a performer are breathtaking (this is something better apprehended by seeing a player live than by listening to a sound recording). He has done a tremendous service in offering a truly great musical instrument exposure to a wider public, and in presenting a highly original if sometimes problematic view of Bach’s preludes and fugues. I am grateful for his sense of color, and continue to watch his continuing maturity with great interest.

Carpenter’s own Serenade and Fugue on B-A-C-H sounds for the most part like a transcription of an improvisation. The fugue ends with chordal sonorities which struck me as reminiscent of Gershwin.

The DVD is something very different from the audio CD. Carpenter here plays a recital of short pieces, some transcriptions but mostly pieces “in the lighter vein” (which is not to mean frivolous—there is quite a bit of substance here). All but one of these selections are done on a four-manual Wurlitzer theatre organ. The cinematic organ is one of the most anti-contrapuntal instruments there is. Cameron Carpenter handles it in a highly original way, making it do his bidding and thinking orchestrally as he goes. The pianistic aspects of a piece like Louis Vierne’s Naiades (Water Nymphs), from one of several books of his wondrously delightful and highly secular Pièces de fantaisie, delight him and in turn his audience. His take-off on Chopin’s a-minor étude is very much in the spirit of Leopold Godowsky’s treacherously difficult piano paraphrases—which Carpenter obviously knows well. His own Three Intermezzi for Cinema Organ are marvels of wit, simplicity and succinctness. His luminous arrangements of Liszt’s Au bord d’une source (At the edge of a stream) from the Années de pélérinage collection and Moriz Moszkowski’s Étincelles (Sparks) are delightful coloristic cameos that would enliven any organ recital (with the proviso that they are played well). His treatment of Schubert’s familiar Erlkönig is phenomenal. There are some dramatic close-ups of the feet, especially when he plays the piccolo obbligato of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever on the pedals. His own Three Intermezzi for Cinema Organ are an epigrammatic summing-up of his exploration of the theatre organ and how to make it work for him. They are full of wit, succinctness and simplicity.

It is necessary for me to declare an interest here. I am an organist, and my most influential teacher was a remarkable man who went through many evolutionary stages throughout his career. He began with grounding in what we now call the romantic/orchestral style of organ playing, gaining an artist’s diploma from a conservatory where his teachers included Charles Courboin (later to become organist of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York), Louis Robert (a Dutchman, despite his French-sounding name, who was also a violinist and a conductor) and a then-25-year-old man named Virgil Fox. Fox assumed the chairmanship of the organ department upon Robert’s sudden death in 1937. My teacher’s first job out of conservatory was a large church in a major Midwestern city, where he busied himself by playing a different memorized program each month. His thinking about organ playing and organ design changed when he met Walter Holtkamp, Sr., a builder who specialized in mostly unenclosed and fully-in-the-open “neoclassical” instruments and whose designs emphasized simplicity. When I studied with him, he was a strong advocate of instruments which had direct mechanical or “tracker” action as opposed to electric action — that is, a direct linkage between the key and the valve which admits air to an individual pipe. At its best, it affords a greater intimacy and control (although some mechanical actions can be excessively heavy and/or uneven). In his last years, he began to see the possibilities of electronic instruments (with which he once refused to have any involvement) and began returning to the predominantly romantic repertoire of his youth. Two of his last recitals included, among many other things, the complete fifth and sixth symphonies for solo organ by French composer Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937). He took a fresh and very lyrical approach to these pieces, playing the thrice-familiar Toccata, the last movement of the fifth symphony, at a faster tempo than I had heard anyone else take it. Cameron Carpenter’s tempo is exactly identical to his.

Carpenter does not begin the piece fortissimo as Widor directs. It is piano to mezzo-piano, and he makes the fast tempo work for him. The Toccata is in 4/2; he gives the listener a greater sense of four to a bar, the importance of the pedal tune (a constant throughout the five-minute piece) and the sharply accented second eighth note of the three eighth-note motif underpinning the nonstop sixteenth-note figurations. His reveling in the pianistic aspects of organ playing serves him well and gives us a fresh look at an old battle horse.

The only piece on the DVD recital not played on the Wurlitzer is the fifth Prelude and Fugue in D from the first book of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. It is not an “arrangement” as such, but simply Bach for two hands now done with two hands and two feet. In the four-voice fugue, for instance, Carpenter assigns the bass voice to the feet. It is the bass which opens with the first statement of the subject, a thirty-second-note run, which he deftly handles with alternate toes—breathtaking clarity and organistic common sense. He plays this piece on a three-manual something-or-other that has a glass or plastic bench and a partially transparent console. Opportunities for effective cinematography are not lost, and there are close-ups of the feet in action. For me, it revealed the practicality of the design of one of several styles of organ shoes he employs (he designs his own). These seemed to have buttons instead of laces. Men’s organ shoes, at best, are a natural extension of the foot and usually have very thin soles—generally leather soles. The laces are mostly secure, but they can, and do, come undone in the midst of a performance—and you have to keep going, even in the face of such a daunting inconvenience.

By way of a bonus, some excerpts from a recital a Saint Matthias Church in Berlin are offered. These are on an eclectic four-manual organ with an emphasis on classic voicing (builder not identified). For me, the most striking of these is Carpenter’s transcription of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, in which he is well served by the same orchestral thinking he applied to the very different Wurlitzer. It is an essay in various shadings of piano and pianissimo.

Information on adding this remarkable recording to your library may be found at