Flash with Substance, Cameron Carpenter Takes on Rachmaninoff and Poulenc


carpenterrachpag

Sony 8898590822

Cameron Carpenter (1981- ) is a spectacular musician and showman.  But don’t let his showmanship fool you.  He is a brilliant and disciplined musician and arranger and belongs to a tradition of flashy virtuosos.  He is also not the first organist to have and use a portable organ either.  Prior to Carpenter people “of a certain age” (your reviewer qualifies) may remember one Virgil Fox (1912-1980) whose musicianship and showmanship delighted audiences of an earlier era.  He too sometimes worked with a portable organ.  In fact he did a show at, of all venues, The Fillmore East with his Rodgers Touring Organ.  This storied home to late 60s rock and rollers included a light show with Fox’s performance of Bach et al.

Another keyboard genius who took on a little flash at one time is Anthony Newman (1941- ) whose enthusiastic and authoritative presentations opened a whole new generation to music of Bach and others as well as introducing them to the organ and harpsichord.  Newman, also a composer of note continues to be a valued concert performer and interested listeners are encouraged to check out his website for more details about this man’s recordings and compositions.

One can’t look at Carpenter with his mod haircuts and stylish clothing without thinking of another wonderful flashy virtuoso, Nigel Kennedy (1956- ), a wonderful violinist with a powerful style and stage presence.  Once again the presence belies the genius just beneath the flash.  Surprisingly he does not have his own web page so I linked to his Wikipedia page.  The Guardian and at Warner Classics also maintain pages on him.  C’mon Nigel, get someone to set up a page for you, dude.

All this is just to put Mr. Carpenter in context (as much for myself as my readers).  So on to the main purpose of this review, the disc.  I don’t know off hand how many discs he has released so far but this one is a fine place to start if you don’t already know this musician’s work.  It includes his work as organist solo and with orchestra, and as arranger in the opening work, Rachmaninoff’s wonderful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1943).  Originally, of course, the work is for Piano and Orchestra and is a piano concerto in all but name.  (And the disc is indexed so you can choose each variation separately if you wish.)

carpenter

Carpenter posing with his touring instrument

Cameron’s arrangement is effective and entertaining.  I will not give up my love for the original but this arrangement does what a good arrangement should by providing insight to the music.  I can only imagine the difficulties encountered trying to make this piece playable on an organ and balancing the sound with the orchestra.  Fortunately Cameron has a valuable partner in crime here.  The Konzerthausorchester Berlin is led by the brilliant conductor Christoph Eschenbach.  And he uses his portable touring organ which sounds as good as any I’ve heard.  They sound fabulous together and the recording is top notch.

How do you follow the Rachmaninoff?  Well, how about the Francis Poulenc Organ Concerto (1934-8)?  Yes, this concerto for Organ, Strings, and Tympani may be a discovery for many folks.  It is a piece which hooks the listener from the very beginning with a crashing fortissimo chord from the organ.  It goes on to an almost baroque sounding development with modern harmonies throughout.  It is a fitting companion on this disc to the opening piece.

And, finally, the final allegro from the Organ Symphony No. 1 Op. 14 (1898-99) by Louis Vierne (1870-1937) who was the organist at Notre Dame in Paris from 1900 to 1937.  Vierne (who wrote six grand symphonies for solo organ) studied with another grand master of the organ Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937).  He wrote ten organ symphonies and a host of other music as well.  Also worthy of note is the fact that the man who first performed the Poulenc concerto was another grand organist/composer named Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) who was Vierne’s assistant at Notre Dame for a time.

If you like organ music you will love this album.  And if you like flashy virtuosos then by all means check out Carpenter’s website and YouTube channels.  Enjoy, and play it loudly.

Metafagote, Rebekah Heller on Solo Bassoon (mostly)


hellerfagote

For this listener, traversing contemporary music concerts in the 1980s there appeared a trend to modify the traditional look of classical performers. The first striking example I can recall is the venerable Kronos Quartet performing all in tight black leather outfits. And there are performers who have an intentionally different look such as violinist Nigel Kennedy or Kathleen Supove whose look is decidedly unconventional. Focusing on attire could conceivably detract from a musical performance but the previously mentioned performers have in common with the performer on this disc both virtuosity and a distinctly different look which seems integral to their performance delivering decidedly unconventional music.  The photography by Corrie Schneider creates a striking and evocative cover image giving her a sort of superhero ambiance.  Why not?

Rebekah Heller, of course, is also one of the members of the wonderful ICE Ensemble, one of the finest working chamber groups focusing on contemporary music. ICE has in common with groups like Bang on a Can, Alarm Will Sound, ACME, and others the fact that they are populated by some of the finest young musicians who seem to be able to meet any challenge…er, commission thrown at them. In addition many of the musicians in these groups are also interesting composers.  The others have a profound interest in new music that match their skills and passions oh so well.

In Metafagote Rebekah Heller presents 4 works on 4 tracks.  Rand Steiger (1957- ) is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and Cal Arts.  Steiger has been at UC San Diego since He is a 2015 Guggenheim Award recipient and though his discography is adequate this writer sees his name, hears his music too infrequently.

Steiger’s work opens this disc with Concatenation (2012) for bassoon and live electronics.  Steiger is skilled in writing for both conventional instruments and for high tech electronics including spatialization, live processing.  Steiger’s work is assertive, pretty much freely atonal, and packs a punch emotionally if memory serves.  There was a vinyl record (this composer is younger than me by one year and I’m guessing still hoards at least a selection of LPs.  The work was Hexadecathlon: “A New Slain Knight” (1984), basically a horn concerto for horn with chamber ensemble.  It burns in my brain still, wonderful 6 minute cadenza at the end too.

Back to Concatenation, it is a sort of all consuming experience, a sound bath if you will.  The timbres achieved with the combination of bassoon with electronics creates some grand, almost orchestral textures.

The second work is by one Jason Eckhardt (1971- ), a name vaguely familiar but his work is new to me,  Eckhardt earned a B.A. from Berklee in 1992 followed by an M.A. (1994) and a D.M.A. (1998).  He has studied with James Dillon, Jonathan Kramer, Milton Babbitt, Brian Ferneyhough, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  That provenance gives one an idea of what to expect…complexity.  And he dishes that out for solo bassoon.  Heller is up to the challenge in this piece, “Wild Ginger” (2014) from a series of pieces based on native plants in the Catskills.  Again, why not?

The third track contains, “Following” (2014) for solo bassoon from a composer whose inspiration also sometimes comes from plants.  Dai Fujikura (1977- ) is a prolific Japanese composer who also comes from a legacy of complexity having studied with the likes of Boulez, Taketmitsu, and Ligeti.  Fujikura’s music may be complex but his music tends to have a softer edge, more like Takemitsu than Boulez.  Again Heller demonstrates her technical skills that rise to meet the challenges posed here.

Last but not least is a piece as large and encompassing as the Steiger.  Felipe Lara (1979- ) is an accomplished Brazilian composer.  He is represented here  by, “Metafagote” (2015), the most recent of the compositions here.  It is scored for bassoon and 6 pre-recorded tracks.  One is naturally put in the mind of Steve Reich’s counterpoint series for soloist playing against multiple pre-recorded similar instruments.  The piece also can, and has been, performed by a soloist with 6 other bassoonists.

While the Reich notion is not the worst place to start, this piece is anything but minimalist.  Rather it is distinctively modernist.  It is a virtuosic exploration of some fascinating possibilities of the lowly bassoon.  Lara owes more to free jazz at times in this epic, almost a concerto, piece.

I don’t know how many bassoon fanciers are out there but if you like new and experimental music of a virtuosic nature this is a great bet.