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Brighton Year-Round 2022

John Collins St Nicholas Organ Recital

John Collins

Genre: Live Music

Venue: St Nicholas Church, Dyke Road, Brighton


Low Down

John Collins plays organ music from the Italian/Iberian late sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with a stronger accent on German and particularly British music.


John Collins is widely known as the doyen of organist on the south coast. He’s also famed for his theming rare baroque and other musics. He has a particularly happy relationship with Iberian organ music – and how often do you hear that? Quite often with Collins, and it’s revelatory.

Collins yet again sweeps through the Italian/Iberian late sixteenth, seventeenth, then eighteenth century – increasingly with German and British stops. Long Organist at St George’s Worthing 1984-2017 he moved to Christ Church there in June 2017.

Collins relishes the change of registers and the remarkable sound-world of St Nicholas. Indeed the organ’s never sounded better than now, and Collins knows this.  One or two pieces we’ve heard here or at the chapel Royal, but no Collins recital is remotely the same even traversing the same ground. His repertoire is vast.

I’m laying this out for organ-lovers, and musicians in general, who might be interested. If you’re curious, dip in.


Girolamo Diruta (1546-1610) Toccata di salto cattibvo de sexto tuono

The Italian Diruta (Diruta’s near Perugia apparently) is famed for developing organ and counterpoint technique, more an innovator than famous like younger composers like Frescobaldi or contemporaries like the Gabrielis. Or the slightly older Claudio Merulo (1533-1604) whom Collins has played. Part of the genre we take for granted is invented by him.

He published his set of Toccatas in 1593 in Il Transilvano Part I. Part 2 followed I 1609-10 just before he died. Which suggests something across-the-forests, or trans-alpine, a fusion of styles. This one, lasting about two and a half minutes, is a gentle ‘touching-off’ (toccata), winding a remarkable set of tones (the sixth allows quite a range) accelerating into a memorable theme, still with a touch of the Renaissance dance about it, but looking forward.


Jakob Hassler 1569-1622 Ricercar del primo tuono

One of the earliest German composer we even hear of, Nuremburg-born Hassler (son of Isaac, brother of the more famous Hans Leo 1564-1612) isn’t now known for his voluminous vocal works but his seven keyboard pieces.

Three are Ricercars (and note the use of the ubiquitous Italian terms, the lingua franca of the day) – his keyboard works ‘are of seminal importance as they seamlessly combine Venetian, German, and Franco-Flemish practices under one roof.’ So another importer and quiet innovator. He paves the way for Germans like Froberger who studied with Frescobaldi.

Ricercar means ‘to search out or to seek’ and there’s that feel to much keyboard music of the time, even that Toccata above. In fact Hassler’s Toccata is a splendid, fiery thing, and there’s a sharpness and edge to his compositions that show how German music moves slightly away from the Italian. It’s a strong piece, luminous and yet distinct, echoing Renaissance liturgical music and as we’ve seen Italian/Flemish sonorities: the grand flow of the one, the edgy individualism of the latter.


Thomas Tomkins 1572-1656 Voluntary in G

The Welsh-born, long-lived Tomkins was after the death of the younger William Lawes the greatest living British composer, for around 11 years. In that time he composed his most famous work ‘A Sad Pavan for these distracted times’ in 1649, on the execution of Charles I. Like Lawes and many musicians, he was a staunch royalist, writing much of the coronation music in 1625.  Charles was known for his patronage and Puritans didn’t go in for the scale of organised or organ music (they weren’t against music: Milton and Cromwell were music-lovers, but private music-making).

But Tomkins’ stature was huge in any case. Tomkins’ slow voluntaries (later voluntaries are a lot quicker) are tonally slightly wayward, with much use of false-relations, those harmonic side-slips so typically the inheritor of what continental composers term the ‘contenance anglaise’ and that was in the 15th century! They sound like minor half-tones, and are unique, “spare, original, strange” as Gerard Manley Hopkins (who knew the music) would say. That sheer weirdness – so prized abroad – is what we lost after Purcell.


Anon Germany late 17th century Toccata 8th Tone

This picks up where the Hasslers left off, though about 70 years on. So the kind of work Bach might have learned. It’s a grander, more confident, spiky, fiery work.


Carlos Seixas (1704-42) Sonatas in C

Seixas was a priest, was like the younger Antonio Soler a pupil of the Italian Domenico Scarlatti. In his brief TB-haunted 38 years he wrote a cluster of attractively post-Scarlatti works which prefigure Soler (1729-83) and the gallantry of the Rococo era, rather  than just the baroque.

His Sonata No. 15 in C minor the Siciliano-Minuet is a languorously misleading classical thing that quickly drops its languor and waltzes to minuet-time: bright, perky, attractive and memorable.

Collins then played another Sonata in C (No. 3?), lasting less than two minutes: a brighter piece, with Scarlatti’s influence, an emphatic almost fanfare-like piece, with a tied rapid three-note theme that threads throughout.


Henry Heron fl. 1750-70 Voluntary No. 4 in C (Diapasons) Trumpet and Echo

Moving to the British mid-18th century we’re in a different word. Heron who worked around 1760 wrote a more recognizably British Voluntary N. 4 in C, a trumpet and echo effect, though more integrated, less showy perhaps than some to begin with, almost back in the 17th century with its slow winding element. But then distinct and rather regal with that trumpet and echo – there’s a bright touch of Handel in Heron.


Starling Goodwin (ca. 1714-74) Voluntary in D Bk 1 No. 7 Adagio (Diapasons) Allegro (Flute)

Goodwin is one of those like the man named Sue, who seems to have overcome his startling name. He’s a memorable virtuosic voice though with his Voluntary No. 7 Set 1 in D with Swell and Vox Humana. This is in effect a bright early-classical prelude (he was born in the year of Gluck and C P E Bach) and a kind of off-stage voicing in the latter sound, ghosting a melody like a processional that’s moved away. Quirky, original music.


William Goodwin d. 1784 Voluntary No. 3 in G Adagio (Diapasons) Affetuoso (Vox Humana/Oboe)

His organ-composing son though is audibly someone who lived into the gallant rococo style, spanning baroque and classical, and his palate’s even brighter. They’re attractive fillets of white and gold, straight out of a Dresden party.


Gaetano Valerj (1760-1822) Sonata-Rondo in E flat (Principali, Flauti, Tromboni); Sonata in C

The unusually-named Italian seems to have left little biography but quite a lot of music, including a well-known Symphony in D.  bar 12 organ Sonatas, all brief, and this remarkable Sonata-Rondo, a lot more expansive. It’s a superb, strange work, full of that bright classicism of the Paisiello/Mozart/Linley/Kraus/Pleyel/Cherubini generation, all born within five years of each other. But it’s unexpected too, wit the sonata-form rubbing with the nagging rondo.

The Sonata in C is bright, bushy and again memorable in a simple ABA way.


Robert Broderip 1758-1808 Voluntary No. 7 in G Largo-Allegro (fugue)

Another from that generation whose work I’ve not heard outside Collins’ recitals was Bristol-born, and as Collins writes elsewhere: ‘organist of the Mayor’s Chapel and St Michaels’s in Bristol and left a set of instructions for the harpsichord, and sonatas for harpsichord with violin, and a set of Eight Voluntary’s (Sic) for the Organ Op V ca 1785, published by Longman and Broderip, who was probably his brother.’

He has a C minor piece Op 5 No. 8 that’s well-known, dark, imposing, weighty, post-Handelian.

This No. 7 seems to precede it, in the optimistic sunny G, pure galant style (all Ionian white and gold) though of course he’s from the classical generation. It moves us towards the Wesleys and 19th century English cathedral organs sounds. It’s a perfect exuent, pealing and somehow contained, not too thunderous, and neat, precise in its dismissal.

Yet another superb Collins recital. A hidden luxury we should enjoy.