wed 23/04/2014

BBC Proms: Cameron Carpenter/ Znaider, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Chailly | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Cameron Carpenter/ Znaider, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Chailly

Mendelssohn masterclass from Chailly and a Bach car crash from Carpenter

Organist Cameron Carpenter: his technique is better than his taste

I'd love to see the stats on the last time a Prom was this packed for an afternoon organ recital. Were it not for the fact that organist Cameron Carpenter was sporting spandex trousers encrusted in silver glitter, a wife beater and Mohawk, you could have been mistaken for thinking we were back in the organ glory days of the early 19th century. Even the programme harked backward, offering as it did big, bloated Romantic transcriptions, arrangements and improvisations (pretty much everything in fact except the urtext).

Scratch that. We did get two pieces of unadulterated Bach, the Toccata and Fugue in F major, BWV 540, and the Prelude and Fugue in A major, BWV 536. Not even these however could completely escape the Carpenter treatment, the garish stops chosen for both reflecting better the organist's outfit than the sober wishes of the composer. The tradition for arranging Bach works is long and eminent. Several works in yesterday's programme were transcriptions of transcriptions. I have no objection per se to any of this. Not even to the slash-and-burn type of arrangements that the young showman clearly seems to like most. But the result must be musical. And very little of what I heard was.

When left to his own devices, Carpenter revealed a musical tastelessness

His arrangements of the Partita No 3 in E major for solo violin, BWV 1006, Chorale Prelude "Nun freut euch, lieben Christen", BWV 734, and the Evolutionary Toccata in D minor, BWV 565, was full of mess and confusion. Bach's melodies and musical arguments were endlessly being swallowed up by Carpenter's incontinent fiddling. Again, no problem with that if there had been some sense to it. But there wasn't.

The wonders of Carpenter's technique (his foot pedalling is beyond compare) could only sustain interest up to the end of the first piece. Beyond the opening Toccata and Fugue in F major, the excitements of his technical virtuosity became overshadowed by irritations over his fidgety musical excess. And when left completely to his own devices in his Improvisation on B–A–C–H, Carpenter revealed a musical tastelessness that suggested this virtuoso wasn't going to return the organ back to the glory days of the 1800s but to the naff indulgences of the middle part of the 1900s.

The 19th-century theme carried through into the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra's Prom, with a programme that wasn't just all Mendelssohn but was all newly restored early editions of Mendelssohn. The only piece that wasn't making a Proms premiere in a new version was the ever popular Violin Concerto. Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider (pictured above with Riccardo Chailly) was the soloist. It would have been churlish not, at some level, to enjoy his accomplished performance. There was an elegance and aristocracy to his sound and a Nathan Milstein-esque cleanness and directness to his playing. But dissatisfaction did creep in. A warhorse like this needs to be invested with a new energy when being wheeled out for a millionth time. And despite a few tiny idiosyncrasies in phrasing here and there - which seemed almost accidental - there was no new vision for the work.


"... the organ glory