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Peter Sykes on Keyboard at Vassar

Music review
Mon Mar 5th, 2018

Peter Sykes

The annual Donald and Kathleen Pearson Memorial Organ Recital at Vassar’s Skinner Hall was performed this year by Peter Sykes, who teaches at Boston University and The Juilliard School. For over thirty years, Sykes has been the Music Director of First Church in Cambridge (Unitarian but originally Congregational).  The announced program was that this concert was in commemoration of the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation.

Sykes opened with “Toccata in F major,” BWV 156, by Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707). The opening and final movement took full advantage of the organ’s powerful potential, while the middle movement ably captured the lyrical line of Buxtehude. Pushing the organ to its maximal capability diminished the individual charm of Buxtehude’s intimate voice, making Buxtehude sound like he was advertising his grandiosity to a corporate board. Except for the more modest lyrical interlude, Buxtehude’s religious sensibility was lost in a welter of imposing sound.

Nikolaus Bruhns’ (1665-1697) Chorale Prelude “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” (“None come to the Terrifying Healing") a short lament, came next. This was played with deep religious sentiment. This short yet charming melody was enchanting. I was not familiar with Bruhns and was grateful for this special treat. Bruhns, a student of Buxtehude, also played the violin with such virtuosity that it has been said that he could simultaneously play the violin in three or four parts while pedaling on the organ. Despite being an occasional showoff in his personal life, this piece was sincere and melancholic without being maudlin, a rare gem played with sensitive and solemn mastery.

With Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) “Fantasia and Fugue in C minor,” Sykes was able to meld the impressive power of the organ with dazzling technique, adroit pedaling, and emotional inflection to produce a river of flowing sound as only Bach could compose.

On the heels of his honeymoon with Cécile, Mendelssohn in April of 1833 began his “Three Preludes and Fugues” for organ, Op. 37, which he completed in 1836. These three pieces are commonly regarded as the most important organ compositions since the death of Bach. Sykes played no. 2 (in G major), which was the last (composed in 1836). Here early Romanticism unfolded with wanderlust drama. The theme of Romantic quest offers seductive trajectory, and Sykes aptly persuaded the audience to journey with him.

Returning to the religious theme of Bruhns, the Austrian Anton Heiller (1923-1979) wrote an extended Partita on “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” which involved me in a polyphonic, spiritual search to discover a satisfactory exit from the sordid, mundane world where I often dwell. The confident interpretation of Sykes convinced me that spiritual healing was not only transcendent but possible—at least in music.

Introducing Max Reger’s “Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor,” Sykes joked that one could save ink by printing the work on black paper—similar to the quip that some of Brahms’ musical notation resembles a descent into a coal mine. Sykes claimed that Reger’s late Romantic extravaganza was not meant to be played on such a magnificent organ, yet this provided a theatrical set up: Sykes had full command of this supremely difficult piece with its quick-shifting stops and panchromatic harmonies that filled the hall with the thundering wonder of an immense waterfall. I had never heard Reger played with such magnificence. And it remains amazing that this piece was composed when Reger was ill.