Normally one finds Peter Sykes at the keyboard of one of his many stunning museum-quality antique harpsichords or clavichords, either for lessons, or in recital, or in the ranks of some of Boston’s most respected Baroque ensembles. But this afternoon, we found him in the cockpit of a thunderous and wondrous spaceship complete with sonic thrusters; the 115 rank, Opus, 308 E.M. Skinner of Old South Church. Destination: The Planets by Gustav Holst. Host: Boston Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
Make no mistake: Sykes is no stranger to the likes of Bach, Reger or any other major organ composer, and has been heralded as one of today’s most versatile international keyboard artists. Everything he does, he does well and with intention, which makes it all the more interesting how he came to create this transcription. Asked to make a transcription by longtime friend for the Organ Historical Society’s convention, Sykes jokingly asked, “I guess you want me to do something impossible like The Planets?” To which the reply was, “I DARE you!” And so it began, with a dare made in lighthearted banter that led to what will quite possibly be one of his biggest legacies.
When asked about the transcription itself, he states in a modest tone that ‘everyone has played it.’ The most interesting element he noted, however, is the fact that while he started from the two-piano score realized by Holst himself, he then began fleshing it out, writing in notes everywhere about orchestration, what manual to play what on, etc. The first performance, he says, was played from that marked up ‘map’ of that two-piano version, striking fear into his page turners who had a difficult job deciphering the hieroglyphs he had written in. Today, the published score stands as one of the instrument’s finest transcriptions, but the master himself says he uses it only as a guide, always adding various details which fluctuate with each instrument and acoustics of the different spaces.
Although, Holst wrote The Planets between 1914 and 1916, it was not given a complete public performance until 1920. Similarly, Boston AGO’s sub-dean Robert Barney came forward to introduce Sykes saying that this particular performance had been 20 years in the making and that he had been present for the transcription’s premier performance in 1994.
Scored for large orchestra, The Planets comprises instrumental sounds, colors and effects, a battalion of percussion and an ethereal offstage women’s chorus. The visceral effects one has grown accustomed to would most surely be missed in an organ transcription; I sat expecting to hear none of the magic. Much to my surprise, when Sykes began “Mars, the Bringer of War” which begins with the rhythmic low pulses given to ‘bassi col legno’ (bow wood striking on strings), I heard the chiff of the organ pipe, its rhythmic clarity thrumming in anticipation, and I found myself immediately enthralled. In “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” the colors were not exactly Holst’s, but because of the beauty of the stops chosen and the underlying understanding of how to pace each phrase, it worked. It was clear that Sykes understood the true nature of a woodwind attack and the nature of the delay and time it takes to actually make the sound. Although stated in the program notes, when the famous violin solo arrived, it still came as a delightful tonal surprise when taken up by an 8’ ft. flute stop. A stunning cello answer followed in the most limpid legato pedal line. The use of antiphonal divisions in “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” made for playful sounds bouncing back and forth. One could clearly ‘hear’ the little bell that tinkles throughout this movement, even though it was not there. The opening of “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” felt slightly rushed, and thus when the famous ‘Thaxted’ hymn tune theme came in much slower than one would anticipate, it was a surprise. Sykes soon made his intentions clear on his choice of pacing, as it was appropriately poured out in good order to leave room for our ears and the physical space to resound, making for a thrilling climax for the most British sounding morsel in the score. Here was where I felt he began to relax, playfully delaying the downbeat on the last return of the theme, seemingly teasing and laughing and enjoying the romp like Jupiter himself. After this movement came one of the most profound moments of the afternoon. “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” began almost inaudibly. He nailed the strange, mysterious color perfectly and it beckoned us in. The dovetailing of solos in this movement from one stop to another was astounding, an almost impossible feat on the organ. This was mastery of the highest level that could not be gained merely from learning to control dynamics or through technical fluency, but from a deep understanding of the textures, timing and above all, the bravery and patience to make choices to allow the instrument to speak the music. “Uranus, the Magician” was brilliantly played and was accompanied by some flipping and morphing of projected images on a portable screen. For the most part, I found the images throughout to be a bit distracting, but somehow this nervous flipping made me laugh as I watched the magician and rabbit morph on the screen in accents to the spiky rhythm and impossibly difficult “wind” passages. Others may have kept their eyes closed—an option suggested by BAGO sub dean Barney in his welcoming remarks.
Assisting organist and registrant Victoria Wagner, who has partnered Sykes at every performance of the work (including the recording at Girard College in Philadelphia), more than did her job, standing behind Sykes deftly sliding in and out from left to right to lean in and play a few well-formed phrases and smoothly catching page turns. In “Neptune, the Mystic,” she took an active role in the texture, finally sitting beside him to the end, and they allowed the music to trail off to an almost imperceptible whisper. There was hushed silence for 20 seconds or so, as they sat unmoving on the bench, as if to let the music of the spheres spin over us. As they took their bows at the end, Sykes gave the organ a bow and Wagner even gave the pencil a bow, which had played its part as a wedge holding down one of the notes. The Skinner, lush but bold, with beautiful round orchestral sounds, made a perfect marriage with this work. Sykes himself had said it was the best organ around for the piece; with 256 memory levels which contain 36 programmable ‘menus,’ allowing for different “orchestrations” which took him three days to set up. For me, the last movement was the least convincing as a transcription despite wonderful use of the organ’s seven celestes, vox humana, odd string sounds and formerly out-of-fashion quiet stops; without the sui generis colors of the offstage women’s chorus, I just couldn’t be completely convinced. But after such an incredible performance, does it really matter? There are, after all, so many stars, and so many galaxies.