John Worgan: Harpsichord music

John Worgan: Complete harpsichord music
Julian Perkins, Timothy Roberts
Toccata TOCC0375. 76’34

John Worgan: Complete Harpsichord Music

John Worgan (1724–90) is one of several London-based 18th-century organist composers that have escaped the present-day acknowledgment of their more famous contemporaries. However, Worgan was well respected in his day, not least by Handel and Burney, who described him as ‘a very masterly and learned fugueist on the organ’. Nowadays he is merely an overlooked byline, with an occasional organ piece popping in anthologies. His surviving harpsichord music is even less well-known. All that survives is a set of six sonatas, thirteen teaching pieces, a ‘New Concerto’, and an independent Allegro non tanto, all included on this recording. Although very far from being fine music, they feature a fascinating variety of styles, some showing the influence of Domenico Scarlatti.

After initial organ studies with his brother James, John Worgan studied with Thomas Roseingrave and Francesco Geminiani, no doubt gaining an admiration for Domenico Scarlatti from the former. Alongside organist posts at several London churches, he also succeeded his brother as composer at the renowned Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

The opening Allegro non tanto in D minor is based on a five-finger excercise motif. Although not published until c1795 it shows signs of being an early work, not least because of its comparative naivety. The Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord, published in 1769, are a rather different matter, although naivety is also an occasional interloper in the musical textures. Stylistically they range from rather formulaic Baroque essays to signs of the burgening Classical era, all to varying degrees of success. They show the influence of several other London composers, including JC Bach. The structure of the six sonatas is inconsistent. The first three have three movements, the first two in a fast-slow-fast form and the third slow-fast-slow. There follows two of two movements and one of one movement – the concluding Sarabande with Variations.

The movement titles are of interest, if only for their range. Examples include Spiritoso, Affetuoso e dolce, Andante amoroso, Minuet Affettuoso, and Bizzaria (here made more bizarre by Julian Perkins’ choice of registration) alongside more traditional titles. The second Sonata surrounds an Air: Affettuoso e dolce with two Spiritoso movements, while the third follows an Andante Amoroso with a vigorous Presto complete with hand-crossing and a final Minuet Affettuoso played here with the dampener.

The Sonatas are given imaginative and compelling performances from Julian Perkins. He adds considerably to several of the less impressive moments through an improvisatory approach to performance and copious added ornaments and flourishes that may reflect the accounts of Worgan’s own playing. Examples include a lovely bit of cheekiness at the end of the Gavott of Sonata V and a wild little coda at the end of the Sarabande. The New Concerto for the Harpsichord was published in 1785, but is far behind the musical tastes of that decade.

The recording is curious in that it feaures two players on different harpsicords, recorded in two different places, two years apart. The bulk of the playing is from Julian Perkins, but the Pieces for the Harpsichord, composed purposely for forming the Hands of Young Pupils to that Instrument (pub. 1780) are played by Timothy Roberts, who was also responsible for the production and editing and persuading Julian Perkins to record the remaining works, despite understandable reservations. The 13 Pieces for the Harpsichord are very different from the Sonatas and are played in a far more restrained manner, perhaps in an attempt to reflect the style of the ‘Young Pupils’.

Roberts plays a double-manual harpsichord by Klaus Ahrend, 1973, after Dulcken, while Perkins plays on a more dramatic and sonorous 1772 double-manual harpsichord from the workshop of Jacobus Kirckman, housed at Dumfries House in Scotland (but recorded in London). It is tuned in a modified sixth-comma meantone, but the effect is extremely mild and copes with frequent notes that would normally have a distinctive edge to them, for example, the occasional A#. Both are at a’ 415 pitch. The Ahrends has a slightly more distinctive key colour.

The scores of the Six Sonatas and the Pieces for the Harpsichord, are both available online, so you can see what the two players do with the notes on page.