The Cambridge Society for Early Music presented Peter Sykes in performances of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations on March 17 in Carlisle and on the 18th in Weston. The upcoming performances will be at the Salem Athenaeum on Saturday at 8:00 p.m., at Ascension Memorial Church in Ipswich on Sunday at 4:00 p.m., and at Christ Church, Cambridge on Monday, March 21, at 7:30 p.m.)

I mention this first, because listening to one of these (I heard the March 17 performance), especially after not having heard this long set for a while, is nourishing for the soul. Indeed, the first edition (one of the few published while Bach was still alive) notes (in German) that they were “composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits.” Although nothing was said at this performance, I later learned that Sykes’s father had passed away last Sunday, and thus these concerts had been temporarily in doubt. Praise to Sykes for going forward with them, and every good wish for the refreshment of his spirits, too.
These are the only variations Bach ever wrote, because, according to his early biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach felt that doing so was boring, due to the required repetition of harmonic structure. But when asked for some of these by a sleepless wealthy Count who wanted music of “such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered by them” (Forkel again), Bach complied — and was well rewarded. When the Count visited Leipzig, he often brought Johann Gottlieb Goldberg with him for music lessons with Bach. It was Goldberg who was required to play the variations for the Count, so his name informally stuck with them.

Sykes is performing on a harpsichord made by Allan Winkler of Medford. It is fashioned after a 1716 instrument made in Hamburg by Carl Conrad Fleischer (only two of his instruments survive). For this iteration, Winkler, who has produced several of these instruments, added a second manual (specifically required by Bach for these variations), and provided the options of playing in Baroque or modern pitches without retuning. So, of the many instruments owned by Sykes, he chose this one for the Goldbergs.

Winkler was present, but had no need to tune during intermission; rather he graciously answered many questions posed in quiet conversations with audience members in this intimate setting. Edward Kottick wrote in his Harpsichord Owner’s Guide, published in1987, that Fleischer’s original instrument sounds “convincingly northern, something akin to a French harpsichord,” but with a “southern accent,” speaking more cleanly, with more hardness, clarity, and brilliance. The same can be said of Winkler’s splendid version, although as he modestly says, the beauty is all in Sykes’s playing.

How true! The opening aria was slow and pensive, with much rubato that, contrary to what we have all been told about consistent tempo in Bach’s music, was absolutely appropriate: Sykes thus leads us carefully into the incredible inventiveness we are about to hear, making sure that the harmonic structure does indeed get implanted in our memory. He plays the Aria (at the beginning and the end, as Bach wrote) and all thirty Variations with all the repeats. In the repeated sections he makes no effort to vary the frequent ornamentation already indicated in the first edition. Although adding ornamentation is in the tradition of Baroque performance, it would be overkill here and muddy Bach’s intention, as Sykes tastefully recognizes. Because not many composers of the time indicated any ornamentation at all, it makes sense to honor Bach’s specific wishes cleanly.

Furthermore, Sykes is careful to distinguish the first and second endings. Obviously one must make a clear cadence at the end of each variation (with the second ending of the second section), but Sykes carefully crafts distinctive endings for the first section as well, often picking up speed and gracefully  impelling his playing into the repeat, while stating the second cadence straightforwardly, a clue that the second section is about to begin. The variety of his keyboard touches is amazing. The harpsichord is a plucked instrument, and it doesn’t “do” dynamics, but it can sustain pitches, much like a piano, if the key is held so that the damper does not drop. Bach wrote many long, sustained notes, and presumably intended them to be heard, which Sykes manages beautifully. His fast tempi are incredibly fast, but never breathless or muddled. Some movements that emphasize contrapuntal writing in three parts, beginning and ending at different times, demand close attention from the performer to be sure all voices are heard individually, and Sykes never fails.

If Bach thought variations were boring, Sykes clearly does not, although to be sure Bach also went a long way to create enough variety in tempo and texture to hold his interest and ours as well. Sykes is clearly aware of this hidden ebullience, or secret sense of fun, and underlines it. This performance earned Sykes a well-deserved standing ovation. Catch it if you can.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.