Cameron Carpenter isn't the first organist to be marketed as a rock star. Virgil Fox, a church organist, became a quirky evangelist for Bach in the 1970s with his "Heavy Organ" performances that opened concerts for Cream and the like at places such as the Fillmore. Fox, of course, didn't look like a rock star, whereas Carpenter certainly does in his undershirt, rocking at the keys, on the cover of his new CD, "If You Could Read My Mind."
What's new is that this is Carpenter's first recording on his new touring organ. It is also his first recording on Sony Classical. And it is the first recording really to capture what an astonishingly original organist and artist Carpenter is. Plus, here is the first proof that the touring organ is no pipe dream but a genuine dream organ, a fantastically versatile electronic instrument with magnificent sounds sampled from Carpenter's favorite organs around the world.
The recording itself is full of joy and daring. Carpenter begins with his own elaboration of the Prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, a seemingly foolhardy thing to do given Bach's enormous organ literature. Yet out of the relatively straightforward transcription on seductively puffy-sounding low stops something wild and weird this way comes, a swinging and outrageously addictive Bach bazaar.
From there, Carpenter's off veering from one extreme to the next. He makes Scriabin's spookily ecstatic Fourth Piano Sonata all the spookier and more ecstatic with transcendental space-age vibrations. Shameless, he goes straight for the sex in his transcription of Piazzolla's "Oblivion," straight for the schmaltz in Rachmaninoff's Vocalise Opus 34, No. 14. He's organist as carny barker in his fantastical version of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" Overture.
Carpenter's own "Music for an Imaginary Film" is a full-blown veer-fest all by itself, intertwining high and low in near psychotic rapture. He paraphrases unlikely pop songs in his moving cover of Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy" and his woozily churchy one of Burt Bacharach's "Alfie." He drenches Marcel Duprè's "Variations sur un Noël" in color, while keeping Bach's Organ Sonata No. 6 simple and straightforward (simple and straightforward for Carpenter, anyway), proving that he and his touring instrument can also be the traditional real deal.
But the real deal requires the real deal. The touring organ is a digital instrument, and on it Carpenter does his wowing best in the best digital sound, which isn't bad on the CD (and is bad on restricted mp3 downloads on Amazon and iTunes or streaming sites). On studio master download from sites that handle high definition, though, the touring organ becomes a conveyor of psychedelic electronic music in a class of its own.
Just how much of a class of its own is made clear by another new Sony Classical release that is not classical in any way, shape or certainly form. "Alfie" turns up on saxophonist Amy Dickson's ludicrously easy listening "A Summer Place."
And Carpenter himself turns up on yet another recent Sony crossover recording, "Red Hot + Bach," remixes of Bach from an interesting, if uneven, group of classical and pop musicians. The release comes in two versions, regular and deluxe with 10 additional tracks. One of those additional tracks is Carpenter going to town on a movement from Bach Violin Partita No. 3. But this deluxe version is only available as an import, for which Amazon is asking a whopping $50.99.
That is no way to treat a rock star, let alone a questing, game-changing artist.
"If You Could Read My Mind"