Cameron Carpenter is the Virgil Fox de nos jours, which is to say a showman of the organ, and a talented one, too. Carpenter, like Fox, revels in his flamboyance. He also revels in a “bad boy” image.
He is constantly saying, “This is not your father’s organ,” so to speak.
A Washington Post headline played right into his PR: “Organist Cameron Carpenter drags his instrument into the 21st century.” That’s the ’tude. And Team Carpenter has that headline adorning his new CD.
It’s called All You Need Is Bach. It is a little sampler of Bach, beginning and ending with arrangements of the composer by Carpenter himself. There is one in the middle too.
The CD opens with Carpenter’s arrangement of Contrapunctus 9, from The Art of the Fugue. It is aggressive, loud, and exciting.
I thought of a question a colleague asked me once: “Jay, is there an album called Madmen of the Organ? That kind of thing?” I loved that question.
And this opening track of Carpenter’s reminds me of something from Rodion Shchedrin’s life. One summer, he and Mrs. Shchedrin (Maya Plisetskaya, one of the greatest ballerinas in history) were vacationing with the Shostakoviches in Armenia. Out of the blue, Shostakovich asked him a question: “If you could take one score with you to a desert island, what would it be? And you have ten seconds to decide.” Shchedrin said The Art of the Fugue. (Shostakovich said The Song of the Earth, by Mahler.)
Early on in his disc, Carpenter plays a prelude and fugue that is not very often heard: that in B minor, BWV 544. I wish we heard it more. From Carpenter, it is spooky and disturbing. This has something to do, I think, with the capabilities of his instrument: a special organ, one of his own design. It is all too much Vincent Price for me. But it’s interesting.
The arrangement in the middle of the disc is of the French Suite No. 5 in G major. There’s a switcheroo. For eons, people have been transcribing Bach organ works for the piano. And now Carpenter has transcribed a piano work—rather, a keyboard work—for organ.
How does it turn out? Not very well, in my opinion. It’s not that the arrangement is bad, or that the suite sounds bad on the organ. It’s just that it is . . . unnecessary. The arrangement does not enhance the music, or show it in a different or interesting light, in my opinion. Carpenter certainly plays well.
At the end of the last movement—the Gigue—by the way, Carpenter improvises a little outburst. That is very organist-like. Fitting.
Near the end of the disc, we get O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross. To my ears, it does not sound especially religious. But it has its power—as does the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. That power includes inexorability.
The final track begins with a drumroll—yes, a drumroll. “Drumroll, please!” Then we hear what may be calliope music—whereupon Carpenter begins the most famous of the two-part inventions, the one in F major.
This is a weird track. But it is perfectly within the organ tradition, which makes room for the whimsical and wacky. What would Bach think of the concluding track, and the album as a whole? I think he would like it all.
That would be a heck of an endorsement, wouldn’t it?
UPDATE: I’d like to revise and extend my remarks, as they say in Congress. I wrote that Carpenter’s arrangement of the G-major French suite was “unnecessary.” It “does not enhance the music, or show it in a different or interesting light, in my opinion.”
Let me make an exception for the Gigue. Which I have heard again. And again. It is rousing, startling, and, in a sense, a new piece. A new organ work, to go with another Bach piece, in the same key, the famous “Gigue” Fugue. These pieces—the Bach-Cameron Gigue and Bach’s “Gigue” Fugue—are cousins, if not siblings.