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)
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)
Perhaps not as "fresh" as Frisch, but a slightly longer and more meditative performance, not as closely recorded. A nice contrast.