Cameron Carpenter, the brilliant maverick organist, has switched record labels again, moving over to Universal Music Group’s American imprint Decca Gold for an album combining two odd bedfellows — Johann Sebastian Bach and Howard Hanson. The CD version of Bach & Hanson was supposed to have come out in October in tandem with the streaming version, but due to supply chain holdups, its “physical” release has been delayed until Jan. 7, 2022. So we have to sample this album the digital way for the time being, a more palatable task now that lossless and high-res digital audio became more widely available this year.
The Bach entry is the ubiquitous Goldberg Variations — the most obvious selling point of the set which I’ll get to later — but the most startling and gratifying idea on the album is Carpenter’s notion of pairing the Goldbergs with his organ transcription of Hanson’s wonderful Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”).
Hanson (1896–1981) had a tremendous influence in mid-20th century America as the energetic boss of the Eastman School of Music, as the instigator of annual festivals of American music, and as a conductor who made many clear-cut, high-spirited, now-coveted recordings of American-made compositions — his own and those of many others, some now forgotten — for Mercury Living Presence.
As a composer, Hanson’s music was derided early on as “conservative” (as if “progress” is measured only in terms of harmonic innovation), derivative of Sibelius (it really isn’t), and thus not worth taking seriously. Don’t you believe it. There is a lot of stirring, heartfelt, sometimes grimly powerful, occasionally modal, sturdily-conceived music in Hanson’s catalogue that begs to be revived now that harmonic politics are a thing of the past.
Of Hanson’s output, his Second Symphony seems to have been best equipped to withstand the onslaught of fashion, bolstered by its ample stock of good tunes with rich, uniquely upholstered harmonies that are guaranteed earworms of the best kind, easily bearing the repetition that Hanson put them through.
Moreover, Carpenter goes on to shine a genuinely new light upon the Hanson Second, apart from the sheer novelty of hearing it on his massive International Touring Organ, the barely-portable digital instrument that Carpenter had built for him. Hearing the first movement in stately, subdued shades of color reframes the music in hymn-like ecclesiastical terms — it really works this way — and only in the third movement does the digital glitter come out to play. Not all of the symphony’s lines can be heard, and some details get smeared in the transfer — there is only so much two hands and two feet can do on five manuals and a pedalboard — but enough is there to put the piece over.
On to the Goldbergs, which Carpenter whisks through without repeats, shooting in all directions, heightening the contrasts between the variations. To cite a few examples: The opening Aria seems to come from a misty distance, while Variation 1 comes on almost like a calliope. No. 6 is a murky blur, No. 7 sounds massively-textured and breathless, No. 8 whips by at lightning speed. No. 13 consists of intertwining piccolo-like lines with no sense of pulse at all; No. 19 sounds like a delicate etude for marimbas. The somber No. 25, interminable in some hands (this means you, Lang Lang, whose live piano version is literally three times as long), is so subdued as to be almost inaudible, but Carpenter doesn’t wear out its welcome, and the penultimate Quodlibet becomes a grand peroration. This highly idiosyncratic transcription is worth a listen, and I’m pretty sure that you won’t be bored.