04
Jun
10

Carping at Carpenter

Arriving home from a frantic two weeks in Japan, I find my post box stuffed full of CDs awaiting my considered critical judgement. Most of these require three or four complete listenings along with jotted down notes and a carefully crafted piece of writing which says what I think as objectively as possible and with as much checking of facts as I can manage in the time allotted to turn these reviews around to meet deadlines.

One review doesn’t, however, get this treatment. For this one, I listen to it, form an instant judgement, write down my thoughts and then listen to the disc again to see how they stand up a second time. The piece written, I then listen to individual tracks again to test that what I’ve said still stands up. Then, with minimal shaping of the text – giving it a more chatty, informal feel – and side-stepping as many comments which might require checking of facts, I send it off to my editor.

Why this different treatment for one particular disc? Well it’s because this disc is being reviewed for an online review page (theclassicalreview.com) and speed of response and sense of instant reaction is what it’s all about. Call me old-fashioned, but I have in my mind the thought that if you are writing for the internet, your readership isn’t looking for the deeply-considered, carefully-judged and eloquently-stated informed opinions those who turn to print media expect. I see internet readership more as stumbling across pages as they trawl the web or chosing to seek out internet opinions because they are free. And for that reason, I feel considerably less restrained in writing internet reviews than I do print ones. After all, the web pages may be sitting out their in cyberspace for years, but who returns to them once they’ve been read? Printed pages, however, are more often stored away and lovingly cared for in the expectation of continued reference over the years ahead; I still turn to review pages in magazines 40 years old.

As it happened, this disc for theclassicalreview.com was called Cameron Live! With the UK election still fresh in my mind, my immediate thought was that the UK had got another Conservative Prime Minister with a musical bent. Edward Heath’s musical bent – bent beyond recognition, some might have said – was well-known; was David Cameron more a closet musico? No. I’d got it wrong. The gay iconography – one photo of our star posing a la Noel Cowerd, another of him apparently trawling a seedy back-alley in the hope of a casual liaison – told me this was none other than Cameron Carpenter, the androgynous wunderkind of the organ world.

My revulsion at his disturbingly blatant sexuality and his camping up of organ performance has kept me away from his concerts in the past; he has a million and one adoring fans of all three sexes; he doesn’t need me. But many whose opinions I respect have urged me to hear him out, and so this review disc offered me not only the chance to do just that, but with an added DVD in the package, it gave me a chance to see him at close quarters and listen to his utterances. I liked what I saw. But, apparently, my review didn’t say that and prompted an immediate and angry response from one Carpenter fan. I’m all for immediate response, but this one hadn’t even read the whole review. But can I complain when I am the first to say that the internet deals with gut reactions and ill-considered thoughts as much as it deals with more considered views?

Unlike most internet postings, those on theclassicalreview.com are edited with consummate skill by Michael Quinn, one of the masters of the art of stiffening up limp prose (I suspect Carpenter would like that kind of analogy), and I trust him to ensure that my ramblings read coherently when they get posted. I think he does a brilliant job, and you can read his work on my text if you follow the link. But here is my review in its original raw state, followed by the response.

“Sensitive souls should, as they say, look away now. This CD is definitely not for you. If you like your Bach played with a modicum of taste, restraint, stylistic integrity and at least a nod in the general direction of accepted ideas on authentic interpretation, treat this as an anathema. This Bach is verging on the grotesque; stops, swell pedals and general crescendos are added to the mix with an abandon which would embarrass even the most heavy-handed of black-pepper-mill yielding waiters, and improvisatory gestures are tossed off with the liberality of an inebriated GI chucking hand grenades at the Viet Cong. It’s part over-the-top cinema, part circus act and part terrorist assault on long-cherished musical values.

“But while this seems like playing bereft of a musical and a stylistic conscience, we cannot simply dismiss Cameron Carpenter as a showman, riding roughshod over centuries of musical refinement in a blatant attempt at self-gratification. For a start, he has built up a fanatical following of fervent fans, many of whom are entirely respectable members of the organ community. The disc’s booklet itself mentions the enthusiastic advocacy of John Weaver (former head of organ at both Juilliard and The Curtis Institute), and when Cameron Carpenter first burst on to the organ scene, I got calls from no less than three highly-respected British concert organists urging me to hear him at the earliest opportunity; words like “fantastic”, “dazzling”, “breathtaking” and “astonishing” were flung about like so much confetti at a wedding.

“And then there is the inescapable fact that anyone who has seen and heard Cameron Carpenter in action cannot but marvel at his incredible virtuosity, technical wizardry and, yes, genuine involvement in the music. There is no doubt that he redefines virtuosity in an organ context, and equally no question but that he communicates the music in a way that cuts right through the awful spectacle of the silver lamé vests, the costume jewellery, the dazzling white shoes and the whole androgynous image. We can’t complain at showmanship when it is served up alongside such hugely absorbing playing.

“That Carpenter is serious about his music is immediately obvious from the interviews on the DVD. He oozes a genuine passion for it, and while some things sound odd – why is it, for example, that in his desire that music should “tell stories”, the stories he finds it telling often involve young boys losing their innocence? – he speaks with a breadth of knowledge and depth of thought which gives real weight to his utterances. Littering the DVD with various transcriptions and original compositions played on a terrifically out-of-tune Wurlitzer and a ghastly-sounding house-organ only emphasises the seriousness of the spoken parts; Carpenter draws a clear line between showman and musician in a way, I suppose, that only an organist can.

“However, I’m not sure that the Bach performances on the CD stand up anything like so well as what’s on the DVD. The idea is interesting and not without its merits – six “great” Bach organ works, played in a succession that follows the circle of fifths (which means transposing BWV 540 up a semitone) and presented as a kind of suite concluding with a summarizing improvisation – but the execution strips the concept of any credibility. There are too many extravagant dynamic changes, eccentric registrations and outlandish tempo choices. Poor Bach is simply submerged beneath all the aural fripperies, and while there are some magic moments (I adore the elasticity Carpenter puts into BWV532, given here a wit and ebullience few organists ever dare with what is perhaps Bach’s most openly humorous creation), there are some disastrous misjudgements too. It almost works, as the fugue of BWV541 heads towards something exciting, but then Carpenter blows it with an improvisation of unconscionably hideous extravagance, not even pretending to explore ideas beyond sheer, cacophonous organ noise (he lets himself go on this Times Square Aeolian-Skinner like a kid in a candy store).

“As a sensitive soul myself, I’m perhaps not the best person to sing Cameron Carpenter’s praises in this context, but take it from me, you are unlikely to experience anything like this again in your lifetime, and I would urge anyone to try the experience, if only once; it’s a whole lot of fun a quite a bit more besides.”

And that prompted a response from one Suzanne B, hiding behind the anonymity of the internet, Suzanne could be Cameron C for all I know. She certainly stands by her man even to the extent of failing to recognise when someone’s actually praising him.

“…we cannot simply dismiss Cameron Carpenter as a showman, riding roughshod over centuries of musical refinement in a blatant attempt at self-gratification.”

“But isn’t that exactly what you’re trying to do? Otherwise why say such ridiculous things?

“The real story here is, I think, that Marc Rochester is an organist, and is looking for ways to bring down the greatest talent on his instrument in modern times. So goes the life of a critic. Even with the Internet to perpetuate it, this kind of criticism will be totally forgotten while Carpenter will be remembered for a long, long time, for things of great beauty, meaning and personal enjoyment that far outweigh anything a naysayer can come up with. Of course, that won’t take decades: for some, it will happen the very next time he plays”.

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1 Response to “Carping at Carpenter”


  1. 1 Chang Tou Liang (Singapore)
    June 16, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Looks like the organ community has found a “Lang Lang” to call its own!


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