Great Virtuosi of the Harpsichord

This series played a definitive role in my own introduction to early harpsichord recordings. After I happened upon Landowska’s recording of the Das Wohtemperierte Clavier, a further investigation yielded these three disks, though I did not realize that they were a series until much later. The Pearl budget label is just damn good.

Volume 1 (various obscure folks)

Volume 2 (Ralph Kirkpatrick: The Musicraft Solo Recordings)

Volume 3 (Violet Gordon Woodhouse)

The first volume is the most varied, with selections from no less than 15 different harpsichordists, some of whom do not exist according to the internet. Some are apparently Landowska students. Of note are the recordings by Rudolph Dolmetsch, a son of Arnold Dolmetsch, a pioneer of the early instrument movement. Rudolph died in World War II. The repertoire posited by these performers is quite broad, including Rameau, Couperin, Dr. John Bull, Brahms (!), Handel, and of course Bach, although the selection of works by this last (but certainly not least) composer is quite limited.

The second disk more than makes up for the first’s deficiency,  about half of the disk being dedicated to JSB. Regrettably, unless you happen to be a white noise enthusiast, the first harpsichord partita is of remarkably poor quality, although it was recorded later by the same performer. Indeed, the whole album is dedicated to Ralph Kirkpatrick, an early student of Landowska and one of the great harpsichordist-musicologists of the century (and, given the obscurity of such a title, of all time). Kirkpatrick chronologically cataloged all of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard works, in addition to producing a biography of the composer. Perhaps I will later upload some of Kirkpatrick’s Archiv recordings, as this is a performer well worth returning to on at least an infrequent basis.

The third disk is dedicated in whole to Violet Gordon Woodhouse, an anti-semitic free love enthusiast who may have been the first to produce an electronic recording of the harpsichord, although Wanda Landowska may be the proper claimant to this all-too-noble distinction. The selections on this disk were recorded from 1920 to 1941. Of particular interest are the excerpts from a BBC interview, including a brief selection of a clavichord piece, “Woe Betide My Weary Body,”from the Straloch manuscript book dating circa 1600. This may be the only Gordon Woodhouse album available.

I didn’t know that there was a fourth volume to this set until I wrote this post, and unhappily I do not have it. It features Wanda Landowska, performing the Golberg variations, the Italian concerto, and the Partita No. 1 for harpsichord, all in 1933. I do have all of these recordings, most likely the ones featured on this disk, so perhaps I have no reason to despair. The Goldberg variations and Italian concerto are on the disk “Landowska Vol. 1” featured on this site, while the harpsichord Partita is on “Landowska Vol. 2.” Both are found on the page “Landowska Plays Bach.”

I have only a slight clue concerning what model harpsichords are used by any of the performers. These recordings were made at such an early stage I imagine most are holdovers from the dark ages (circa 1800-1920) when very few harpsichords were being produced. It is likely that at least some originated from artisan shops such as Arnold Dolmetsch’s (including certainly Kirkpatrick’s, according to the review linked below), made all the more probable considering his son plays on the first album. The timbres are reminiscent of Pleyels, without much pitch bend and sounding quite tinny, almost bell-like in places, although this may be a byproduct of the recording process.


Great Virtuosi Vol. 1 Tracklist

Great Virtuosi Vol. 2 Tracklist

Review of Great Virtuosi Vol. 2

Great Virtuosi Vol. 3 Tracklist and Review


Yella Pessl Biography

Eta Harich-Schneider Biography

Marguerite Roesgen-Champion Biography

Julia Menz Biography

Ralph Kirkpatrick Biography

Violet Gordon Woodhouse BiographyKirkpatrick-Ralph-03.jpgrudolph dolmetsch.png