Cameron Carpenter: All You Need Is Bach

If you've been waiting for Baroque music to get a fresh, modernist kick in the pants, then you just need to keep on waiting.
Cameron Carpenter
All You Need Is Bach
Sony Music Classical

When the CD copy of organist Cameron Carpenter’s All You Need is Bach arrived in my mailbox, a flattering passage from the Telegraph was printed on a sticker affixed to the shrink wrap: “It was Bach re-coloured and reworked so profoundly that the music seemed to be emanating from a distant planet and some future time, rather than north Germany in the early 18th century.”

This assessment came from a concert review and was not directly affiliated with the album it was being used to promote. And perhaps writer Ivan Hewett did experience something that night that, to his ears at least, truly sounded out of this world. Many a concert-goer is familiar with that elusive x-factor, that thing on which you cannot place your finger, that thing that a proper studio recording of the same piece seems to lack. That could very well be the case here. With all due respect to Hewett, the Telegraph, and Carpenter himself, the music on All You Need is Bach sounds like Bach—played on an earthbound organ—recorded in either the present day or from one of many, many prior decades. You don’t even need to remove the CD’s shrink wrap to know that Cameron Carpenter is shooting for some kind of gimmick. With his propensity to perform in sweaty tank-tops while sporting a hairstyle that would have been edgy thirty years ago, Carpenter has developed a mild reputation of rankling the classical music establishment by taking small liberties with old music on a newly developed digital organ. But even when you factor in the album’s cutsie title (he melds the Beatles with one of Bach’s Inventions on the disc’s final track), the gimmick never really bursts through. All You Need is Bach just sounds like Bach played on an organ.

In all fairness, classical organists are a well-rehearsed subset of musician. You could even go so far as to label them masochists, seeing as how they willfully train themselves to walk, chew gum, calculate their taxes, and juggle at the same time. Alright, that’s an exaggeration, but the ability to play two melodies on different keyboards with both hands while supplying a bass line with your feet is heightened all the more when asked to perform music from the Baroque era. When things like polyphony and counterpoint are defining characteristics of a composition, those extra sixteenth-note runs can’t be shortchanged for anything.

But for all of the freshness that a young performer with a new instrument can bring to Bach’s tried-and-true pieces, All You Need is Bach finds Carpenter cutting corners. Many of the tracks sound as if he’s in a hurry to get them over with, the worst offender being the second movement of the Trio Sonata for Organ No. 3 in D Minor. In this particular passage, Carpenter’s fingers move too quickly for him to convey any sense of expression to the listener. The trills blur together, and the transitional moments sound like he’s genuinely confused. As the CD rolls along, the sound somehow manages to become more homogeneous even as Carpenter’s fingers are locked in an ongoing battle between legato and staccato (often at the same time).

As mentioned before, the 20th and final track is a medley of “All You Need is Love” and Bach’s Invention No. 8 in F Major. It starts with quaint percussion noises, much like the old-fashioned theater organs used to accompany silent films, before playing a lopsided version of the Beatles melody. The music shifts to Bach at the 0:20 mark and stays there for the remaining 60 seconds. It’s an odd way to conclude the album, but if it was a way to fulfill the gimmick, then it’s too little too late. Dress code violations and digitally rigged organs be damned, All You Need is Bach is too uneventful to be masquerading as “Bach re-coloured.”

RATING 4 / 10