Thursday 20 May 2021

A disc of harpsichord pieces by an unknown late-18th century English composer might not appeal, but you've never heard anything like John Worgan's harpsichord music

John Worgan Complete Harpsichord Music; Julian Perkins, Timothy Roberts; Toccata Classics

John Worgan Complete Harpsichord Music; Julian Perkins, Timothy Roberts; Toccata Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 May 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Famous in his lifetime, the 18th century composer John Worgan seems to have dropped off the radar but this disc should tickle the palate with its exploration of Worgan's idiosyncratic Scarlatti-on-acid style

Until I received a copy of this disc, I have to confess that the name of the 18th century composer John Worgan was virtually unknown to me (he crops up briefly on London Early Opera's first Handel at Vauxhall disc). Having recorded Worgan's complete organ music for Toccata Classics, Timothy Roberts has returned to record John Worgan's complete harpsichord music, sharing the harpsichord honours with Julian Perkins
The disc contains Worgan's Allegro non tanto, Six Sonatas for Harpsichord, Pieces for the Harpsichord composed purposely for forming the Hands of Young Pupils to that Instrument and A New Concerto for the Harpsichord in G major.

So who was John Worgan?

Born in London, Worgan studied with his elder brother James, then with Thomas Roseingrave, and finally with Francesco Geminiani. He held a number of church appointments in the City of London alongside being organist for Vauxhall Gardens. In church he was famous for his improvisations, whilst at Vauxhall he produced organ concertos and songs, and would publish fourteen volumes of his Vauxhall songs (and he was only in post from 1751 to 1753!) One of his sons, George Worgan, was the surgeon on Captain Cook’s First Fleet and in January 1788 George Worgan arrived in Port Jackson, New South Wales, on board the flagship Sirius, along with his square pianoforte by Frederick Beck – the first piano in Australia.

From Thomas Roseingrave, Worgan got a liking for the music of Domenico Scarlatti and it is very much Scarlatti that comes to mind when you listen to these pieces. Thomas Roseingrave had befriended Scarlatti in Venice in 1709, and in 1739 published his own edition of 42 Scarlatti sonatas, including some of the Essercizi, as well as other sonatas of which he must have had manuscript copies. In 1752, Worgan able to obtain a licence directly from Scarlatti in Madrid to publish another volume of his music, and there was a further one after Scarlatti's death.

Worgan's fellow organist Joah Bates records that in his improvisations, "his imagination was of the original and captivating kind, that his audience often looked on each other with significant astonishment, and remained open-mouthed and breathless for several seconds after the organ had ceased", and it seems to be the element of wildness in Scarlatti that appealed to Worgan.

Worgan's Pieces for the Harpsichord Composed purposely for forming the Hands of Young Pupils to that Instrument with the help of a proper Instructor (1780) are ordered not only according to their technical difficulty, but also following a ‘cycle of fifths’, whereby the student is introduced to keys using an increasing number of sharps or flats. The Six Sonatas, Worgan's first published keyboard music (1769) may also have been intended for pupils, just as Scarlatti's Essercizi were designed partly "for training yourself in mastery of the harpsichord", whilst the title page of the New Concerto makes things clear its intention, A New Concerto for the Harpsichord, with the Parts of Accompanyment, Consisting of Two Violins and a Violon-cello composed by Dr. Worgan. Purposefully for the Practice and Improvement of his Pupils, and Others Who are Attaining a Command of that Instrumt (published in 1785).

The 1772 Kirckmann harpsichord in the family parlour at Dumfries House
The 1772 Kirckmann harpsichord in the family parlour at Dumfries House

We begin with Julian Perkins, performing the Allegro non tanto and Six Sonatas for Harpsichord on a double-manual harpsichord from the workshop of Jacobus Kirckman, housed at Dumfries House, Cumnock, Ayrshire, Scotland. The harpsichord was made by Kirckman in London in 1772 and delivered to Dumfries House later that year, where it has remained. It was restored by Huw Saunders, 2020 and is tuned in modified sixth-comma meantone by Oliver Sändig. Then Timothy Roberts plays the Pieces for Harpsichord on a double-manual harpsichord by Klaus Ahrend, 1973, after Dulcken, with Perkins returning for the New Concerto

Worgan was clearly interested in 'Ancient Music' (and Handel was another of his gods), much of the music is tinged with the Baroque. After all, Domenico Scarlatti was of the same generation as Handel and died in 1757. What makes Worgn's music is the crazy element, some of his sonata movements are rather like Scarlatti on acid, and with Worgan's fondness for hand crossing I had to double check that these were pieces for just one player. Julian Perkins describes Worgan's music, not without justification, as being 'littered with unusual figurations, breaches of eighteenth-century compositional orthodoxy and even moments of harmonic kinkiness'. And yet.

There is something appealing about the sheer imagination of these movements. Nothing outstays its welcome, and sometimes the music feels like you are being bearded by a particularly intense and enthusiastic musician constantly saying what about this, and just listen to this. That he published this music and presumably had an audience for the publications implies that there was an audience, and that music in England at the time was not confined to the polite lessons and exercises. There is a robust verve to this music, and its oddity and occasional roughness of harmony only serve to add to the flavour. The music taps into that vein of rough eccentricity in English music which pops up quite regularly, never quite being overcome by politer continental models.

There are numerous musical references which tempt and tantalise, though luckily the articles by Roberts and Perkins fill in a lot of the gaps, whether it be evoking the pathos of a Vauxhall song or sending up opera seria, and Perkins even refers to the music as 'bawdy'.

By having two different harpsichords, we start off with a wide colour palate and both players use their instruments to the utmost so that along the way there is lively selection of colours and timbres which at times matches the wildness in Worgan's music.

We don't really know why Worgan wrote this music, or why he wrote in this way, or why after being famous in his lifetime his music seemed to languish and die. But this disc should hopefully tempt listeners into exploring more. 

John Worgan (1724–1790) - Allegro non tanto in D minor (publ. c. 1795) [3:03]
John Worgan - Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord (publ. 1769) [39:09]
John Worgan - Pieces for the Harpsichord, composed purposely for forming the Hands of Young Pupils to that Instrument (1780) [23:26]
John Worgan - A New Concerto for the Harpsichord in G major (publ. 1785) [10:55]
Julian Perkins (harpsichord)
Timothy Roberts (harpsichord)
Recorded on 6 June 2018 at St Saviour’s Church, South Hampstead, London, and on 25–26 October 2020 at Holy Trinity Church, Hoxton, London

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Making goodness interesting: a new recording of Handel's Rodelinda from the English Concert with Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies and Joshua Ellicott  - record review
  • Legacy: A Tribute to Dennis Brain from horn player Ben Goldscheider - record review
  • Side-stepping with deft elegance the issue of what instrument the music was written for, Andrew Wilder reinvents Bach's Lute Suites on classical guitar - record review
  • Bärenreiter's Schubert edition, BBC Singers & Bathrobe recitals: baritone Jamie W Hall's remarkable journey to making his first solo disc, Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin - interview
  • Streamed, live-audiences or both? As ensembles consider innovative ways of returning to performance with live audiences, Middlesex University has been doing some research - feature
  • The Harmonious Echo: there are plenty of delights in this second dip into Sullivan's neglected song repertoire - record review
  • Together, apart: The House of Bedlam's Enclosure on NMC explores how musicians make music when not physically able to be together - record review
  • A vivid and restless talent: music by Serbian composer Isidora Žebeljan in the first disc issued after her death last year - record review
  • "Heard a practice mighty good of Grebus" - Samuel Pepys and the tantalising Louis Grabu - feature
  • Messe da Pacem: conductor Rupert Gough and the choir of Royal Holloway rediscover a mass by Pierre Villette, unperformed since the 1970s - interview
  • Celebrating Latvia's centenary with music: the State Choir "Latvija" records 16 new works from a project creating a grand total of 77 new pieces by Latvian composers - record review
  • Vaughan Williams' folk songs; Albion Records continues its exploration with a second volume including 15 world premiere recordings  - record review
  • Hymns of Kassiani: Cappella Romana explores the music of the earliest known female composer - record review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month