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.