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Last Sunday I attended Cameron Carpenter’s all-Bach recital at a packed Berlin Philharmonie. Carpenter made ample use of all the resources of the large [link=http://www.schuke-berlin.de/img/Download/Berlin%20Philharmonie.pdf]Schuke organ[/link], which includes two stage divisions with visible sets of shutters on either side of the choir seats.

There was a printed programme, which however just contained an essay on Bach’s organ music in general. Carpenter was to announce his programme on the spot, in English (having lived in Berlin for several years now, he deemed his German “still terrible”). He entered to big applause, hopped on the bench and started immediately with the first movement of the C-major Concerto BWV 595 after prince Johann Ernst, in a very flashy and amply ornamented version, shutters a-flutter throughout, that all but brought the audience to their feet.

Then he announced phantasy and fugue in C minor BWV 537. He rendered it in a dramatic Lully-, or rather Marchand-like fashion, with many roulades and trills added and in a large Grand-jeu registration; the contrasting sections were articulated in lombardic, or scotch-snap, style and played on the full foundations. For the fugue, he employed the 16’ choruses and pedal reeds, again with much shutter activity, the only problem being that the shutters tended to rattle when being closed. He played the ending with a large penultimate ritardando and then finished resolutely and quickly. Again, the audience was enthusiastic.

He the announced two pieces in the key of G: the French suite no. 5 and the first setting of “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” from the Leipzig chorales. The suite, I confess, was my all-night favourite. Carpenter opened up the texture completely, often playing delicate trios: e.g. a Quintadena with tremulant and a soft Gedeckt in the manuals, being swapped for repeats, over an 8’ Gamba in the pedal. Everything was meticulously phrased and articulated, and he seemed to relish in the singing lines of the sparing polyphony. Pure bliss. The Bourrée he turned into a trumpet tune (if you look at it, you plainly see how he got the idea). In the following chorale, he used lombardic rhythm in the accompaniment, and played the solo line with the stage Trichterflöte 2’ two octaves down, which brought in a beautifully singing principal colour. He first held back the tempo for the coda and then let the line flow very expressively to the end. There was a long and breathless pause after that, before the audience finally gave their applause – big, but rather more serious.

Last piece before the interval was P&F in D BWV 532. Guess how the pedal scale was executed – yes, in octaves, cleanly articulated, and fast. Choruses with pedal reeds first, then, for the pedal point section, full foundations and constant playing on three manuals; the D-major flourish with an Elgar-like sforzato–crescendo. Light foundations for the concerto section, entering crescendo later on; for the end again Grand-jeu, introduced by an improvised manual cadenza. The fugue was quick and well articulated, always being kept on three to four manuals and employing much thumbing-down, all flawlessly executed. CC made opening-up the texture a sport, and a treat to listen to. Towards the end, he more and more enriched the, already virtuosic, texture with embellishments, and ended, again, flashy. The audience was enthusiastic.

After the interval, he started with the great B-minor P&F BWV 544. Here things became interesting. As in the French suite, he undertook to completely open up the texture, systematically employing three categories of sound: reeds, principals, foundations – on all dynamic levels available. He began with the (French-toned, delicate) Oboe, answered by a lone Diapason, and then being supported by full pedal foundations. He stuck to this analytical approach through the prelude and much of the fugue, in the concluding third of which he blended the colours, developing a crescendo towards the end. This bare-bones kind of approach I found quite daring, as well as enlightening – also because it was much closer to Webern than to Virgil.

After that, he improvised on »Jesu, meine Freude«, starting from one of the Bach settings from the well-known a-cappella motet – in an all-out Tutti, still modified by much shutter activity. Carpenter first demonstrated how close the tune was to Dupré’s “(Cortège et) Litanie”, quickly turning, however, to blues-y tones. In two verses, he used double pedal, playing the chorale with his right foot under a lively big-band-like accompaniment. He ended, quite modestly, with two trailing-off manual solos.

He then took to »O Mensch, bewein’« from the Orgelbüchlein, again in a surprising, as well as thought-provoking, fashion. In English cathedral style, he started the solo line on the big horizontal reed, accompanied by an all-boxes full-swell sound, built up to a Tutti and then receding for the last two lines to the original registration. My first reaction was, of course, “This is all wrong” – but is it, then? The solo Reed had an authoritative, preaching character, and the full-swell accompaniment brings in a very conservative element (mark you, in a concert-hall setting). After all, this is a piece about dogma – and a questionable one at that, aiming at injecting a feeling of mortal guilt into the christian soul. Before starting on his improvisation, Cameron had introduced the piece saying “Whenever ‘Sunde gross’ is mentioned, I get interested”, and I believe coming from him, that’s more than just banter. I may be completely wrong here, but I think you could hear this interpretation as CC’s sincere comment on what the text, and the music, convey.

He finished with his own arrangement of Bach-Busoni’s Chaconne after BWV 1004/5. Very virtuosic, showing the full range of his manual and pedal abilities and the organ’s range of colour and dynamics. He got a standing, and responded, of course, with another version of his »Evolutionary« version of the D-minor toccata.

This was a heart-rate rising concert experience, not only of some provocative interpretations, but also of organ playing perfect as well as passionate, bringing out – and sometimes exceeding – all the passion and excellence that is present in Bach’s keyboard writing. What I took home from it, except high spirits, was a sense of being wary not to underestimate that man again.

Best wishes,

Friedrich

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