Why would anyone want to listen to a harpsichord?

This seems to be the usual response among non-fans of Early Music (and frankly, even among many fans) to the idea of sitting down to listen to a solo harpsichord recital. "What a terrible, rickety, monotonous, headache-inducing sound! Wasn't the harpsichord the reason why the piano was invented?"

I've compiled this short list of recordings - mostly Bach - that I hope will be of interest to music lovers and audiophiles. The harpsichord (and its variants- see below) is a wonderful instrument for audiophile recordings. The subtleties of its mechanisms, and the lack of the comparatively enormous resonance we are used to in solo piano recordings can make for fascinating listening, and often a complete rediscovery of music we might have heard only on instruments the composers never dreamed of.

All of these recordings reveal the (to most) very surprising diversity of sound possible from these instruments. Even an individual instrument can have various slides and stops that dramatically change its sound. The other, virtually unknown, instruments provide an even greater variety.

1. Hans Ruckers: The Musical Legacy - Jos van Immerseel (Northwest Classics 128390 - Hybrid Stereo SACD)

Instruments: Harpsichords, Virginal

Available directly from http://www.northwestrecords.com

Ruckers was not a composer. He was the Antonio Stradivari of the harpsichord. This recording showcases three instruments made by his students and descendants. A virginal is a small instrument whose strings run sideways, and has a very distinctive and intimate sound. The music is an exciting variety of short pieces from 16th-18th centuries. Closely recorded and extremely revealing without being too aggressive. A true audiophile recording.

2. Bach: Fantasia Cromatica, Sonatas & Transcriptions - Yves Rechsteiner (Alpha 027 - CD)

Instrument: Pedal harpsichord

A pedal harpsichord is a monstrous instrument, rarely heard. It is basically a regular harpsichord mounted on a "bass harpsichord" and played with both hands and both feet. The result is an amazingly layered sound with occasionally stunning bass and resonance.

3. Bach, Bull, Byrd. . . - Gustav Leonhardt (Alpha 042 - CD)

Instruments: Claviorgan, Harpsichord

The legendary Dutch organist and harpsichordist plays two instruments, including the rarely heard claviorgan, which is basically a harpsichord whose keyboard is mounted directly over the keyboard of a small organ. An exquisite sound brilliantly captured by this innovative and technically accomplished French label.

4. Bach: Complete Trio Sonatas - Shawn Leopard and John Paul (Lyrichord 8045 - CD)

Instruments: Two Lute-harpsichords (Lautenwercke)

The lute-harpsichord is another near-forgotten Baroque instrument, and this recording gives you two, in a thrilling left-right separation. Although at first glance the instrument looks like a harpsichord, it is really derived from a large lute (strung in gut), turned on its side and attached to a keyboard. It produces a rich and warm plucking sound.

Two Bach Goldberg Variations:

5. Celine Frisch (Alpha 014 - 2 CD)

Instrument: Harpsichord

Lavish production (sound and packaging) and a charming young harpsichordist. This set includes a second CD of "14 Canons on the first eight notes of the bass of the Aria of the Goldberg Variations" performed by the excellent chamber ensemble Cafe Zimmermann.

6. Jory Vinikour (Delos - 2 Hybrid Stereo/Multichannel SACD)

Instrument: Harpsichord

Perhaps not as "fresh" as Frisch, but a slightly longer and more meditative performance, not as closely recorded. A nice contrast.
Allow me to add two more entries to your fine list.

--Martin Galling recorded JS Bach's keyboard music for Vox;if you find any of the vinyl lp "Vox Boxes" at a garage sale,grab them up. I know some of the collection has been transcribed to compact disk.

--Ralph Kirkpatrick taught clavicord and harpsichord at Yale for years and years. His recordings of D. Scarlatti's Sonatas(selected) and of JS Bach's WTC(one and two) are outstanding.
I believe that it was Johann Sebastian himself who maintained that the harpsichord was: “a terrible, rickety, monotonous, headache-inducing instrument!” It was the reason that he travelled for three days to hear one of the first-built forte-pianos.

(Wellen, you must know that I am pulling your virginal! I grew up listening regularly to the virtuosity and theatricality of Igor Kipnis and Fernando Valenti, among others.) Thanks for the recommendations, they are all new to me.

Are you familiar with a performance of the “Goldberg Variations” by Bob van Asperen? I find it brilliant. It's on EMI but not a new recording.

Oh, I am not allergic to aspirin.

Listen to Erroll Garner (Jazz pianist) play several different harpsichords on "Erroll Garner in Paris"
Some of those sounds I bet they never heard before!
My wife, Viola De Gamba, loves the harpsichord. I'm telling the truth here. I'm not a lyre.
frank zappa used the harpcicord in many recordings, i personally like the sound when it was used in some of the early zappa band albums.

Harpsichords suck
Harpsicord. Reminds me of Lurch from the 'Addams Family' TV show. The sum total knowledge of most American's exposure to this instrument. I live on a hill above a major University where one of my neighbors sometimes has private classical concerts in her library/music room. She brings stars from the local major metropolitan symphony and opera to play.

Often she plays her harpsicord first.

Lots of fun. Let's hear it for the rare occurance of a room full of truly interesting people.
Heck I like everything from Metalica to Barbara Streisand for crying out loud! Varriety is what makes it all interesting when the moods change. If I had to hear a piano every night I'd start to hate that instrument. Otherwise, I occasionally like some varriety. LURCH ROCKS!...
A nice solo harpsichord piece I heard recently was Chaconne in C major by Bernard Storace available on a compilation disk of Renaissance/Baroque Festivas by the Belladonna Baroque Qt. (Dorian 93228). It is suprisingly lively and piano-like.
I'll listen to it because of the historical significance of the music, but yeah, it's not the most pleasant of instruments. Definitely best listened to in small doses.
For years I've enjoyed Trevor Pinnock's performance of the Scarlatti Sonatas on the Archiv Production label, and use it as a reference CD. It is one of the few CDs I own that I never tire of, and when it falls into rotation, several weeks can go by with a daily listen to it. Even after several years of litening to this recording, I still shake my head in utter amazement at not only the compositions, but at the conviction with which Pinnock performs these pieces.
With a modern piano,you can control the amplitude(volume) of the note by how fast you strike the key. Someone writing for a piano would be able to take advantage of the player's ability to play at different volume levels.

A harpsichord(sometimes) had two manuals so you can plasoft(both hands on the soft keyboard),medium(one hand on one and one hand on the other),or loud(both hands on the louder manual). A composer writing for a harsichord or a clavichord resorted to compositional devices later composers did not.

Listen to a piece of baroque music you know well on a piano and then listen to it on a harpsichord. In the later instance,the performer,only able to "terrace" dynamics,takes more advantages ofchanges in articulations among contrapuntal voices and changes in tempos.

That's why I listen to harpsichords from time to time. Proper performance of the same piece differs with the instrument being played.