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Cameron Carpenter’s Not-So-“Revolutionary” Bach Debut

Jed Distler

Artistic Quality:

Sound Quality:

Cameron Carpenter’s flamboyant persona has brought new listeners to organ music, abetted by his championing Marshall & Ogletree’s International Touring Organ and its extraordinary range of options in regard to sonorities and temperaments. The fluidity, assurance, and unabashed bravura one usually enjoys from Carpenter’s live performances make themselves felt in his first all-Bach release, recorded in Berlin’s Jesus-Christus Kirche.

Perhaps lighter-sounding stops would make the opening selection, Contrapunctus IX from The Art of Fugue, feel less cluttered, but Carpenter’s lively tempo and strong articulation save the day. The C minor Passacaglia and Fugue’s colorful registrations and slightly drier ambience dust off this work’s monumental cobwebs. Carpenter’s effortless finger and pedal board coordination in the First and Third trio sonatas are impressive but a shade slick and impersonal when measured alongside the deeper refinement of John Butt’s clearer and more closely engineered recordings.

Carpenter is more in his element in a crisp and wittily embellished Fifth French Suite. However, certain sustained bass notes threaten to overpower the chamber-like transparency Carpenter achieves in the chorale prelude “O Mensch, Bewein Dein’ Sünde Groß”, not unlike a lurking shark threatening to swallow you up. Lastly, Carpenter prefaces the F major Two-Part Invention with a kitschy, campy, and cartoony theater organ send-up of The Beatles’ introduction to “All You Need Is Love”. Critics love to hate this aspect of Carpenter’s artistry, but it’s all in the best of bad taste.

The platitudinous and pretentious booklet notes trot out historical contexts to support their claim that Cameron Carpenter is a revolutionary organist, and a Bach interpreter whose embrace of modern reproduction techniques automatically places him alongside Glenn Gould and Wendy Carlos. I think it’s more accurate to say that Carpenter’s Bach is in the tradition of showmen like Virgil Fox or the young Anthony Newman, with a little Rick Wakeman thrown into the mix. As my mother would have said, that’s not chopped liver.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Album Title: All You Need Is Bach
Reference Recording: Selected Organ Works: Richter (DG); Butt (Harmonia Mundi)

    Soloists: Cameron Carpenter (organ)

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