The work of Ligeti, Cage, and several others notwithstanding, composers who have boldly led the harpsichord into sonic realms beyond the traditional are still few and far between. Nevertheless, a wealth of literature has been written for the instruments since its revival early in this century. Some of it is "generic" keyboard music that would sound as good played on the piano or even on the organ; some of it capitalizes on the harpsichord's inherently sharp attack, metallic resonance, and special timbral effects. The 20th-century harpsichord repertory amounts, at any rate, to a lot of material -- and some of the best of it is contained on this new album from the American virtuoso Barbara Harbach.
Bohuslav Martinu's finely crafted Deux Pieces of 1935 makes deliberate reference to the harpsichord's Baroque hey-day, as do the not terribly interesting pops-flavored offerings of Rick Sowash and Alec Templeton. The rest of the music heard here has only the instrument's sound in common with music of the 18th century, and in the case of William Albright's 1979 Four Fancies -- with its full-handed tone clusters and rapidly pounded chords -- the sound occasionally seems more of our own time than any other. The sonatas by Vincent Persichetti and Samuel Adler, from 1984 and 1982, respectively, are mainstream modernist classics; the Virgil Thomson Portraits (three form 1940, one from 1956) were all intended for piano, but they lose nothing of their original zip in Harbach's harpsichord adaptations.
The performances here are nothing short of brilliant. And so is the recorded sound: only three selections were given full digital treatment, but listening to the disc, you wouldn't know which they were unless you looked closely at the information on the back cover.