Harpsichords are an acquired taste, with the assumption that it’s an instrument best played in powdered wigs and weird frilly shirts. To some they’re the soul of Baroque music, while others find the sound about as pleasant to the ear as cracked-out mice in tap shoes.
I used to be in the latter crowd, but have since gravitated to the former after listening to such inventive pieces for the instrument as Henryk Gorecki’s Concerto for Harpsichord (Or Piano) from 1980, Glenn Gould’s outer space interpretation of Suites by Handel (the “what the fuck am I hearing” factor is pretty high there, but in a good way. Maybe). Philip Glass’s 2002 Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra is something I could listen to all day.
More often than not, the harpsichord is utilized in a half joking, postmodern way, signaling a shift from elitist fussiness to transgressive atonality. Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grossi are great examples, sounding like it was completed by Corelli during an exorcism, as are a few pieces by Eliot Carter.
Modern music has been slow to pick up on the instrument, but when used as more than an incidental novelty, it works remarkably well. The Beatles’ version of “In My Life” and “M16” by Vampire Weekend are two songs that give the harpsichord its own solos. Unlike the glass harmonica and the pianoforte, harpsichords don’t seem to be on their way out.
Anyway, Jean Rondeau’s powerful Dynastie, released recently earlier in 2017 on vinyl, is the latest example of what can be done with a harpsichord and a player who knows what to do with it. Rondeau’s debut, Imagine, was all Johan Sebastian Bach transcriptions, so his dedication to the composer is obviously deeply felt.
This recording, his third, starts with JS’s complexly layered D minor Concerto (what I consider the Baroque “Emperor”), and the performance is no-nonsense, unfussy and totally absorbing. Following that is JC’s upbeat Concerto No. 6, which sounds a little like a newly discovered work by Vivaldi, as does the later concerto by WF Bach. Two more concertos by Poppa Bach appear on Dynastie, in the middle and then rounding out the album. Besides being an assured, meat and potatoes interpretation of the highest caliber, it’s also a brief course in music history, ranging from the contrapuntal Baroque style of JS to CPE’s classical, practically middle-period Mozart sound.
Dynastie received an Editor’s Choice Award from Gramophone when it dropped, and I would agree that it’s one of the best classical records of 2017. The harpsichord had never been anything resembling hip, but Rondeau edges pretty damn close to it.