Bach Before Forty: Peter Sykes playing the organ of St. Stephen’s Church, Pittsfield

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J. S. Bach playing the organ
J. S. Bach playing the organ

Bach Before Forty: Peter Sykes playing the organ of St. Stephen’s Church, Pittsfield
Sunday, February 17, 2013
presented by the Berkshire Bach Society

Toccata in C Major, BWV 566
Allein Gott in die Höh sei Ehr’, BWV 717, 711, 715
Pastorale in F major, BWV 590
Prelude and Fugue in g minor, BWV 535
Prelude and Fugue in d minor (“Fiddle”), BWV 539
Partita on O Gott, du frommer Gott, BWV 767
Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier, BWV 730, 731
Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor, BWV 582

A musician who undertakes an entire program of Bach’s music needs perspective, especially if the program is to be varied. Bach wrote an amazing quantity of music in an amazing variety of styles and genres, and Peter Sykes’ program was assembled with a clear sense of the big picture. There is no substitute for experience, and having played virtually all of Bach’s keyboard music, as well as much of his contemporaries’, Sykes has a clear and convincing idea (whether accurate or not, no one can know) of Bach’s intention for each piece, even each note. This is particularly important in organ music, since the performer has the responsibility to color in the music in ways that performers on other instruments simply don’t need to; each piece has to be virtually orchestrated.

Some organists fall back on standard combinations of pipes that create familiar “church organ” sounds; I believe these are the sounds that audiences think of when they imagine organ music, and in most cases it turns them off–they associate it with a “churchy” or pious attitude. Organ recitals are among the least popular forums for presenting “classical” music, and it has become a tradition in this country for extroverted performers like Virgil Fox or Cameron Carpenter to hype and hoke up a concert with flamboyant clothing, over-the-top repertory (transcriptions of Wagner and Mussorgsky, for example), and lurid, exaggerated registrations.  Nothing could be less appropriate for an all-Bach concert. Peter Sykes placed all the emphasis on the music itself, and the performer’s concise and articulate verbal comments (supplementing those in the printed programs) kept all the attention where it belonged.

This program was not in the least “churchy,” and the performer managed to bully St. Stephens’ Austin organ (dating from the 1920’s) into sounding like something that Bach would have approved of for his music, even though its basic character is pallid and soft around the edges, and it is really a different type of instrument. The builders of the 18thcentury German tracker-action organs bach played emphasized textural clarity and complexity, sharply contrasted colors, power, and versatility. Since the basic style of most baroque organ music was polyphonic, the instruments had to maintain a clearly differentiated projection of multiple layers of sound while holding ample reserves of power. Sykes was somehow able to pull off one magical registration after another to show clearly the formal contours of the music and to powerfully project its expressive gestures; the key word for the concert was variety.

Less than half of the program was devoted to religious music, all based on chorale tunes. These works formed the central portion of each half of the concert, which was divided by an intermission. The chorale settings were surrounded by works composed purely for listening; and each of those works exemplified a different genre. The opening toccata, an early work not to be confused with the better-known “Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue” of the same key, is a firecracker of a piece: in this performance, it really exploded. Sykes pointed out that early on there is a loud, fully-voiced, low-register chord of the type that Bach would have used to test a new organ’s “lungs.” (In other words, it demanded an instant supply of a large amount of pressurized air. Bach was highly in demand to test and evaluate newly constructed organs all over central Germany.)  It also displays the “stylus phantasticus” which means a free, even eccentric expression of whimsical and spontaneous thought translated into sound, which needs to be played with great elasticity and unpredictability. It is particularly characteristic of Bach’s earlier keyboard works. Tucked away amid this excitement are short fugues, which stabilize the mood before the next impulse carries the music away in a different direction.

Bach’s specific intentions for each work were dramatically illustrated by the three settings of Allein Gott in der Höhe sei Ehr’, one of the most frequently used tunes in the Lutheran church and therefore one that Bach set and reset many times. Of these early settings (as opposed to the later Leipzig ones), the first two are texturally sparse and without pedals; the second is a duet for a flowing lower part, presented by the organ’s “Posaune” (or trombone) voice, under a hovering chorale. The third, for full organ, seems like a willful attempt to bury the chorale under complex textures and unexpected harmonies. Despite our having just heard two very lucid presentations, it was difficult to detect the presence of the same melody here. The interpretation exhibited the performer’s enjoyment of Bach’s cat-and-mouse game with his listeners, and if we missed the melody, what we did hear was glorious.

The modestly-scaled Pastorale in F, really a short keyboard suite with an introductory “Piva” or shepherd’s bagpipe piece like the final movement of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, provided some respite for the ears to prepare for the grandly-scaled performance of the Prelude and Fugue in g minor. This prelude is itself mostly a cadenza-like warm-up for the well-known solo harpsichord roller-coaster of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto (first movement, second version), and it was neatly dispatched with Sykes’ precise finger-work. The fugue bore the hallmarks of Bach as the heir to the tradition of Buxtehude, with repeated notes and a lengthy running passage within the subject. In other hands, such a work can sound pedantic, a demonstration of technical mastery; but powerful registration, extremely articulate digital and pedal technique, and a sense of the stubbornly assertive character of the music (and the composer) kept the listener’s attention riveted to the build-up of its materials. This turned out to foreshadow the final work on the program, the fugue following the Passacaglia in c minor, which paralleled the gestures and shape of this piece, but raising everything to a higher level of complexity and power.

The second half of the program was played, at the performer’s request, without interruption, a choice motivated by a careful shaping of mood building up to that final work. For me, the highlight here was the composer’s very early chorale partita on O Gott, du frommer Gott. This is an antique genre, actually a chorale theme and eight variations, which Bach inherited from generations of German organists from Scheidt to Böhm, and one which he would not take up again as a mature composer. Research indicates that it and its two companion pieces were composed between 1700 and 1702 in Lüneberg, where Bach was in school and boarding at the home of the great organist Georg Böhm; and the chorale partita genre is one of which Böhm was a master. Though written possibly as early as age 15, it proved the greatest “find” of the program, a real gem of delightful invention and even humor, matched by the performer’s ingenuity in wringing every last ounce of color, character, and contrast from his instrument, including “polychoral” dynamic and spatial effects in the extended final variation with its clearly indicated echoes between the front and back of the church. If it is indeed this early, then Bach must be accounted one of music’s great prodigies alongside of Mozart and Mendelssohn.

The grand finale was the Passacaglia and Fugue, which occupied the same position in one of Peter Sykes’ earlier appearances in Pittsfield. It was possible to see how his interpretation has developed, as well as his knowledge of the instrument he was playing. This was as magisterial a performance as can be imagined, with every gesture fully differentiated and detailed. The character of each iteration of the passacaglia pattern was clearly revealed and set in relief without sacrificing the sense of the inevitable march leading to the concluding double fugue, and there was no let-up in dramatic tension all the way to the final extended fugal coda. Any sense that the instrument was limited or recalcitrant was long forgotten in the splendor that the organist evoked, a case of artistic passion overcoming mere physical obstacles.

It was a pleasure to watch as well as listen to this program. Peter Sykes’ movements were models of economy, necessary given the extremes of agility required by Bach’s fully engaged pedal parts. Mind and body both knew where to go next. His phrasing always served to clarify the thinking and expression behind the music; my impression was that this was how Bach must have played. (I have often fantasized about what it would have been like to hear Mozart or Beethoven play their own works, believing that we cannot come close to imagining what that might have been like. This was the rare occasion when I have felt that such a fantasy was superfluous.) Part of this comes from the assurance and authority with which each piece, section, and phrase was given its character, and from the brilliance of the programming, as if the composer were saying, “Listen to this piece I wrote; and if you think that’s good, check this one out…and this one…and this….”


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