Tuesday, 28 February 2012

All that glitters is not gold

Konzerthaus, 26/02/2012
Cameron Carpenter, organ

Grainger: Colonial Song (arr. Carpenter)


Toccata and Fugue in F major, BWV 540
Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 544
Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542
Prelude and Fugue in G major, BWV 541

Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on the choral ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’, S 259

Prior to this concert I’d seen Cameron Carpenter perform once before, strangely enough at his Juilliard graduation recital – I was in New York at the time and Paul Jacobs, his teacher and America’s best home-grown organist, had remarked to me something along the lines of ‘we don’t know what we’re hatching here, but in five years he’ll be everywhere’. It was obvious then he wasn’t destined for a staid career in the organ loft, his life measured out in scintillating discussions about wind pressures and the ideal recipe for caraway seed cake, but, moderated by Juilliard-imposed discipline, the flamboyance he is now notorious for had something fresh and unusual going for it – a strongly individual style with questioning independence of mind. So what happened?

The programme for this event was a waste of time as Carpenter didn’t deign to inform us what he was playing (details were unhelpfully mumbled into a weak microphone, in English, after the first item, Grainger’s Colonial Song). Instead the booklet contained a interview in which he repeatedly insists – with, under the circumstances, some unfortunately self-absorbed language – that he doesn’t showboat, justifying his unorthodox style with contrary remarks (the choicest being that apparently Bach’s organ works aren’t any good) as specious as they are attention-seeking.

Of course with music as dull and badly-written as Bach’s the only option is to improve it. And so after the Grainger Carpenter slashed his way through a string of preludes and fugues, substituting his own excisions and additions for the bits he finds so intolerable. Indeed, why bother with all that fussy solo footwork in BWV 540’s Toccata when you can cut it short with a crude pedal glissando? BWV 541 was brought to a clumsy halt halfway though the fugue to make way for an improvisation which had nothing to do with the fugue subject or Bach – perhaps just as well, as it is a brave or stupid organist who dares to improvise Bachian counterpoint, though Carpenter’s sequential fumbling around, peppered with blues notes, was still toe-curlingly incompetent, and so monotonous that I couldn’t even endure it in an operative mode of Schadenfreude. Capable filler should be an organist’s stock in trade, though it requires a honing wholly neglected by Carpenter’s disdain for method. With a deadening lack of thematic substance, the botching of details as rudimentary as preparing a perfect cadence, and the sense that the wretched thing would never come to an end, it was with mighty relief that Bach was permitted to resume, his arresting freshness throwing this feeble episode into stark relief. Perhaps Carpenter thought it wonderfully novel, but I could only stifle a yawn as the inevitable sixth was added to the final chord.

It was a blessing that more of the truly great preludes and fugues weren’t mauled: I shudder to think what Carpenter’s Wedge or BWV 564 would sound like, and as for the holy of holies – the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 – well, I’d prefer not to think. But we did get BWV 542, which Carpenter sees as insufferably grandiose and in need of cutting down to size. He did this with breathtaking vulgarity – no opening chord to speak of here, but rather an interminable flourish which started at the bottom of the keyboard and extended across multiple manuals. Poorly chosen registration didn’t help clear the muddiness, and when the Fantasia was actually recognisable as Bach the playing was horribly choppy and tempi erratic. The fugue began at a breakneck pace which Carpenter couldn’t sustain, and when it began to drag he abruptly halved the tempo. His ‘virtuosity’ has come a long way for a technical gift which can’t draw on the support of thorough training or preparation, but it consistently fails him at the final hurdle. Notes are lunged at, careless fistfuls at a time, and I don’t believe he would be able to point to a passage of Bach and say what fingering or pedalling he is in the habit of using. Registration is improvised, at times changing every bar, always calculated to titillate, and though there is an element of showing off when he takes all the voices in his right hand to grab at stops with his left, his technique is nowhere near dexterous enough for him to pull it off. The adrenaline-fuelled, unpredictable and aggressive keyboard manner also does reckless damage to the instrument, particularly when it’s tracker as in the Konzerthaus: Carpenter violently slammed the swell box open and shut, had to restart the fugue of BWV 544 after jamming an entire manual, and ripped a stop out during BWV 542.

‘Ad nos’ didn’t indulge in as many antics, though Carpenter made a sprawling and incoherent mess of its form. Encores were the prelude from the G major cello suite transcribed for pedal solo, which he could barely play (the less said about articulation the better), and the two Bourrées from the C major cello suite, treated to yet another ramblingly tedious improvisatory interpolation.

Carpenter has duped an uncritical cohort of admirers to which this Viennese audience was, depressingly, the latest converts. Astonishing, too, to see that some of America’s more distinguished music critics have been taken in by such tasteless playing (why oh why, Alex Ross?). Organ recitals are one of the hardest mediums for a performer to communicate in and innovations such as video screens – even if certain critics are under the impression these were never used before Carpenter (who does rather spin it like that in his new broom shtick) – have helped put a human face to the music. But apologizing for a phenomenally rich repertoire in the name of rescuing the medium from its anorak-clad devotees, well, surely we can see what that is all about. All that glitters is not gold, save for Cameron Carpenter’s sequined organ shoes and his recital circuit fees. For all the talk of virtuosity and vitality, there’s nothing he offers that hasn’t been done decades before, and better. One might have more patience for his act had he genuinely resuscitated a worn-out bag of gimmicks, but to ineptly hack Virgil Fox’s rotten corpse to pieces while disingenuously assuming some pseudo-revolutionary mantle of rescuing the organ from its hidebound devotees is pure charlatanism. There are those of us who care greatly about hearing Bach’s oeuvre treated in original and distinctive ways, and one needn’t listen to much Alain, Walcha, Richter, Rogg, Hurford or Bowyer to recognize Carpenter’s imagined grammarians for a self-serving chimera. Anyone who values the instrument and its greatest composer is advised to stay well away from this fraud.

Image credit: Chris Owyoung


  1. i wouldn't write Cameron off yet. he's young and doing what he feels he has to do and he's getting better. his 2nd album is much better than his 1st and there's still time, much much time for him to "grow". i didn't "wake up" till my mid 30s

    he can play the organ - he's just trying so hard not to

    he's more than capable of sitting down and playing off the text to a metronome in a JC Penny suit but that's not what he wants to do. there are others out there for that if you want to hear the same notes played over and over and over again the same exact way year after year after decade after decade - that's not what Cameron wants and not what his fans want

    lucky for you that you're smarter than both

  2. You sound jealous! Cameron was a speaker at the TED conference in Long Beach two days ago and was incredibly brilliant. He received a unanimous, practically instantaneous standing ovation from an auditorium packed with some of the most brilliant and inquisitive minds from around the world. So you seem a little behind here.

  3. Loretta: Good for you that you enjoyed his talk, but this was a concert review... The two things are not the same.

    Anonymous: there was evidence of the mature organist you say he might be one day at his graduation recital, so I won't hold my breath. His claim that what he's doing at the moment is art raises a smile, but can't be taken seriously. That he now he looks and plays like Liberace doesn't bother me all that much - there's obviously an audience for it and I don't begrudge them their entertainment. But is it any good, even as entertainment? It does, after all, take some amount of skill to spoof Bach. But all Carpenter does is irritate for a while and then bore.

    Contra your state of the profession remark there are actually some fine players out there who make the instrument and repertoire sound musical and expressive without showing off. For an American example just look at Paul Jacobs.

  4. "there was evidence of the mature organist you say he might be one day at his graduation recital, so I won't hold my breath."

    oh, did he miss the cut-off?

    listen to his latest album "cameron live". you might be surprised. even most Cameron haters seem to enjoy it so you might too

    here's a sample:


  5. Was Cameron playing his own touring organ?

  6. No, he played on the Konzerthaus's clapped-out behemoth of a 5 manual Rieger (Austrian firm, tracker). BWV 540 wasn't quite as insufferable in that video you posted as in the concert, but I still only managed a couple of minutes. What I want to know - this also happened in the concert - is why does he play it in F sharp? I suspect it's because all those black notes show off his virtuosity more, though it's hardly as if his pedal technique is up to it.

  7. "What I want to know - this also happened in the concert - is why does he play it in F sharp? I suspect it's because all those black notes show off his virtuosity more, though it's hardly as if his pedal technique is up to it."

    if you listen to the interview part of that youtube video i posted you will know why he bumped it up to F#. IMO it really makes the piece shine

  8. Oh, OK. I skipped the interview because - as should be clear already - I don't have a lot of time for his act.

    1. " I don't have a lot of time for his act."
      Why not review only artists/selections that you have the time to do properly?
      That you do not like him is no excuse for an ill prepared review.

  9. But you're spending a lot of time on his "act", and trying hard to find reason after reason to knock him down. As for his virtuosity or whatever other problems, I'm a lot more inclined to listen to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and tons of German papers (to the extent I can understand) to get a real handle on how this man's work is actually being received. To put it lightly, he's being heralded - so I don't think the constant bashing is really believable. That's why it reads as jealousy.

  10. Also, if the organ he was playing was "clapped-out", by your own admission, then it's hardly fair to judge, is it? Give any artist a worn out instrument and they're unlikely to represent themselves very well.

  11. Loretta, to take your second comment first: I can only mention workmen, tools and blame... The Konzerthaus Rieger is a century old and in need of replacement, but that hasn't stopped other organists from managing ways around the instrument's shortcomings and giving fine recitals on it. There is also absolutely no excuse for Carpenter's vandalism - the Great will almost certainly have to be taken apart to repair the damage he inflicted on the action and organists who are in the habit of ripping out stops shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a pipe organ.

    I will set your idiosyncratic reading of my reasons for writing this review to one side. When I'm dismissive I do try to give my musical reasons, and while you say that my criticism is not credible I cannot help but note that you're making a claim about a concert which you yourself did not attend...

  12. "Anyone who cares about the organ is advised to stay well away."

    What a jerk-off!

    1. Stephen Hillough13 March 2012 at 00:42

      Yes, indeed. What is this bollocks? I was at the recital, as was Martin Haselbock whom one without much effort could easily overhear praising the recital afterward, and the MINUTES of sustained applause after the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude which Carpenter could "barely play" still say more in my ears at this minute that this strange, jealously written (right on, Loretta) non-review could do if it were 10 pages longer. Methinks the blogger doth protest too much.

  13. Stephen Hillough13 March 2012 at 00:38

    The Great will have to be taken apart? So what? If it's a broken organ, they should fix it. When a piano string is broken, nobody goes on and on about how Pogorelich shouldn't be allowed near a Steinway, or any such nonsense. The idea that he could inflict damage on an action is ludicrous. Anyway, who are you? The Vienna Konzerthaus organ technician? That would explain a lot, since you're so quick to defend some apparently broken-down organ. Anyway, if the organ is "a century old and in need of replacement", who cares if he broke it? It's "in need of replacement". In that case, the sooner the better!

    And I'd be real careful talking about Carpenter as "vandalizing" anything. He's got some really powerful management, and if someone were talking about me vandalizing something, I'd be looking at whether it was libel.

  14. That last sentence is without a doubt the most (unintentionally) hilarious comment left on this blog so far.

    The Konzerthaus organ is what it is, and while I have no problem per se with musicians who push their instruments, in this specific case my experience is that organists who give the instrument time to respond actually get more out of it than those who would treat it like some punching bag. Comparing organs to pianos is like comparing organists to pianists, and should really be avoided unless one is making a far more subtle point than you did. As for it being impossible to inflict damage on an action – well Carpenter disproved that after he jammed a manual. Or did you not notice that? He did have to restart the piece, and experienced dozens of other stuck notes which had nothing to do with the instrument, just his senselessly aggressive ‘touch’ (if we must call it that). I don’t defend this old Rieger at all, but the only ludicrous notion being circulated here is that the Konzerthaus has a spare couple of million lying around and would make a priority of spending it on a new instrument for an overrated showman to abuse like some petulant child.

    It is interesting that you would prefer me to be less critical and yet have nothing to say about the performance beyond the fact that it received an ovation (such things have been known to happen before in Vienna!). If Carpenter’s playing wasn’t as crass as I claimed, then maybe you could enlighten me.

  15. Are you an organist?

    1. I used to be. Now I'm content with my CD collection and organ recitals, which are sadly few and far between in Vienna. The Konzerthaus only hosts four a year and while the Musikverein got a new Rieger last year they haven't used it much. The one really memorable event was an excellent Jongen Symphonie Concertante Latry gave with the RSO Wien, but that was already almost a year ago.

    2. Yeah.... thought so.

  16. I saw Cameron live last year and plan on doing so again next month. I also own both of his albums and plan on buying all future albums. So you can say I'm a big fan of his capabilities.

    I've seen a pipe organ break down right in front of me at the Cathedral Basilica in Newark NJ. I actually have it on film. The leathering got jammed on a pedal note and the note remained playing for the 2nd 1/2 of the concert. The organ isn't that old either. Pipe organs are very complex and mechanical machines. It doesn't take much for one to break and they do so often.

    What amazes me is the amount of hate that I see geared toward Cameron Carpenter. I've never seen such venom before in my life. We've heard the phrase "love him or hate him" before about all sorts of artists but my God, the hate that's generated by his existence is amazing. I believe it's jealously, envy, homophobia or a combo of all and maybe something else I'm missing.

    I was at an organ concert last year and the mistakes this organist was making were horrible and I never dreamed of getting on the net and bashing the shit out of him. What would it serve? I just go on with my life but I think there's something else at play here.

    1. Re. malfunctions - yes, these happen, but not as regularly as you make out. I guess ciphers are the most common but when I think of all the organ recitals I've been to over the years (and when I was living in England it was a lot) I only recall a couple of really bad instances.

      You are the third person to mention this now and I just want to rein in some of conclusions people are jumping to - which is that objecting to Carpenter's playing somehow amounts to a 'bashing' of Carpenter the person. He certainly isn't unique in this regard, as you claim - sadly there are individuals who hold that unless one accepts that Lang Lang is God's gift to the piano, then one is a racist. It's arrant nonsense of course, its sole function being to discredit the critic in terms that trump the critic's discrediting of the artist. And it would be insidious if only it weren't such a self-evident ploy, and prone to collapse under the weight of its rhetorical overload (listeners who merely find Carpenter crass are jealous, now homophobic, and no doubt tomorrow anti-American).

      Get real guys! If you're going to call me anything then call me an organ snob. It would at the very least sustain some kind of connection to what I've written...

  17. Cameron Carpenter @ Wiener Konzerthaus