Keyboardist displays

Concert Review: Keyboardist displays talents on twists and turns of Bach


Monday, November 22, 1999

By Rebecca Redshaw

Reprinted from Saturday’s late editions.
Supposedly, the most watched spectator sport in the United States is auto racing. One of the most elite categories of serious music spans the Renaissance and baroque eras. This may be a stretch for some, but the similarities between Friday night’s performance at Synod Hall by Peter Sykes on harpsichord and a young Mario Andretti in the Indy 500 were uncanny.

Sponsored by the Renaissance and Baroque Society, the harpsichord recital was a tour de force in stamina, ability and agility. The knowledgeable audience listened intently as Sykes maneuvered through the twists and turns of the “Goldberg Variations,” written by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1741.

The variations were named for J.G. Goldberg, who requested the work from Bach to occupy the sleepless hours of an insomniac Russian ambassador. The piece opens and closes with the Aria, and in between are 30 variations, in a variety of styles, tempos and keys. Sykes acknowledges that when the work was composed, it “represented a level of keyboard virtuosity previously unexperienced. In other words, it is very hard.”

Opening with the uncomplicated Aria, the vibrant sound of the harpsichord established the tone for the evening. And yet, the keyboardist changed mood and tempo with each new movement, like downshifting when approaching a curve and accelerating on the straightaway. The technique demanded by Bach posed little problem for Sykes as he maneuvered the two-manual harpsichord. Variation 11 was particularly impressive, with its descending runs and unique melodic lines. The change to a minor tonality added interest to the perpetual rhythmic progressions. Sykes elicited a variety of emotions from Bach’s unpredictable lines.

Variation 13 was slow, with the artist’s subtle retards particularly compassionate, in contrast to the rhythmic drive of so many of the variations.

After intermission, Sykes opened with a movement written in the French Overture style, and he dazzled with technique. The speed of the arpeggios in variation 20 was definitely high gear, but Sykes proved up to the task and played with driving intensity and skill.

Describing this concert without mention of the instrument performed upon is like saying that Andretti won the race driving a four-wheeler.

Designed by Willard Martin of Bethlehem, Pa., one of the leading manufacturers in the country, this 1994 Frances Flemish Double-Manual Harpsichord was modeled after the 18th-century keyboard, not dissimilar to what Bach may have been accustomed to hearing.

Sykes perhaps said it best in his pre-concert remarks. “Bach’s music can transcend what people do to it. The music brings out the best on whatever it is played on.”


Rebecca Redshaw is a novelist and playwright who freelances for the Post-Gazette.