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Master Composer, Great Organist Served Well by Superb Organ’s Pipe Arrangement


The concert on Monday, July 26, at First Congregational Church in Cambridge, part of the 17th International Baroque Institute at Longy School, was a combination of delights – a great organist, Peter Sykes, playing works of a master, Johann Sebastian Bach, on a Frobenius, a superb instrument. Sykes is master of his craft – skilled in Baroque performance on organ, harpsichord, and clavichord. He has recorded repertoire ranging from Buxtehude to Hindemith and has released his own transcription of Holst’s The Planets.

I sat in the third row to the right of the organ, close enough that many of the individual pipes could be localized. The Frobenius organ has a mechanical action, typical of the organs in Bach’s day, which gives the organist a direct connection to the valves that control the pipes. The result is a precision of expression that older electro-pneumatic organs cannot match. I grew up listening to the great recordings of E. Power Biggs on the Flentrop organ at Harvard, and got hooked. Hours of listening to Bach and his great teacher Buxtehude followed. I arrived in Cambridge in time to meet Charles Fisk as he installed the great organ in Memorial Church, and then spent 10 years singing right next to it. More recently I have been serving as page-turner for an organist friend as he played many of the same pieces in this concert on organs around the world. Sykes played without a page-turner. I don’t know how he did it.

His concert brought memories flooding back. The trio sonata “Adagio Senza Pedale a due Calv.” that forms the second movement of the Concerto in A minor, BWV 593 (after Vivaldi, Op. 3 No. 8) is intensely beautiful, as the three voices weave among each other, each with its own distinct timbre. The Frobenius has its pipes in the swell and the choir arranged in six groups of seven pipes, with the longest ones to the left, and then descending in length and ascending in pitch in intervals of a fourth. As you play a scale the notes hop from one group to another, creating a pattern in sound and in space. I could easily hear this where I sat, and found it delightful. The notes – and the musical lines – sparkled brightly around the face of the organ. The two allegro movements were played appropriately fast, and the spatial movement of the notes was less obvious. The notes blended into a fast-moving stream of complex sounds.

The Partita on O Gott, du frommer Gott, BWV 767 is a masterpiece of the mature J.S. Bach. The theme is introduced by the full organ, and the variations that followed allowed Sykes to demonstrate the great many sounds this organ can produce. Oboes, strings, crumhorns, sackbuts, gentle flutes, and chirping birds all had their turn. I marvel at the ingenuity of the composition and the shear wonder of the sounds. Organ pipes tend to make a little chirp or “chiff” at the beginning of each note. Even if the pipe does not do it, the human brain places such importance on the beginning of notes that if we listen to them in the presence of reverberation we hear the chiff whether it is present or not. The effect adds to the sparkle of the organ sound, as notes seem to pop out of the reverberant texture, clearly delineating the melodies.

The organ has no vibrato. The sound has a purity of tone that cuts through acoustics, speaking directly to the listener. And this one was in excellent tune. I heard from one of the students that Sykes was seen earlier crawling about the pipes and touching up the tuning. It worked – we were all grateful. At one point in the partita Sykes used the tremulant – a device that adds vibrato to a section of the organ by causing the wind pressure to fluctuate. But that mechanism causes all the pipes to vary their pitch precisely together, preserving the purity of the harmony as the pitch slightly varies. This is a wonderful sound, and unique to the organ.

Another mature work followed — the meditation Liebster Jesu, wir sind Hier, BWV 731, a quiet trio of two voices and pedal, intensely emotional and personal. Once again the contrast in timbre between the three lines made the intertwining strands of melody easy to follow, and very moving. The last piece was the great  Passacalia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582. It is an early piece by Bach and brought back many memories of Buxtehude. The piece is often used as a showpiece for the power of a great organ, but the Frobenious in the First Church was built to be beautiful, not just loud. The Passacaglia that forms the first part of the work is one of the greatest ever written, on a par with the final aria of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Both bring tears. Sykes played with measured freedom – not the full-out “inegal” of Melville Smith or Frank Taylor, but with enough swing to give the music humanity and life. The fugue that followed danced. The full audience was delighted.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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