La Scena Musicale

Friday, 10 June 2016

Lebrecht Weekly - Cameron Carpenter: All you need is Bach (Sony)

2/5 stars

Before we go any further, let me declare once and for all that I am done with three stars. Everywhere else, critics award three stars as a kind of neutral, no-harm-done mark for something they neither love nor hate. Myself, I’ve stopped reviewing that sort of thing. If it doesn’t make you want to laugh or cry (for better or worse), why steal a nanosecond of your readers’ attention by discussing it?

So no more three stars on this site.

They’d be wasted, anyway, on Cameron Carpenter. The flamboyant American organist, more used to playing in a singlet than a surplice, either makes you feel young and with-it or old and totally out of it. Much of what I’ve heard him play has the first effect on me. Cameron is virtuosic, effervescent, totally in command of his pipes and sometimes quirky enough to make you rethink the piece from core principles. I like it when he does that, a lot.

Just not in Bach. To my ears, the sound of his much-vaunted International Touring Organ is all wrong in the fugues and sonatas selected for this album. No matter that it’s recorded in the sonorous Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin-Dahlem, it sounds unsuited to Bach and not a million miles away from the entertainment arcade of an English seaside resort.

What’s missing? Awe, that’s what. Bach can, in sententious hands, sound like so much holy-moly. Here, however, there is no sense Sebastian at the organ was writing for the glory of anything larger than his lunch. Cameron powers through the pieces with impatience and bravura. All too easy.

That’s just my impression, of course, and I may have fallen headlong into the Cam-trap of being made to feel unworthy of his genius. There is, after all, so much to admire in his fluidity and bravura. Other listeners may find All You Need is Bach utterly life-changing. But two stars is all I can give (now that three have been abolished). And two's a lot.

—Norman Lebrecht

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