The trusty audio CD, although now in decline, is still probably the best format for the enjoyment of harpsichord recordings. The sound quality is potentially excellent – the same or very similar to what would have been heard by the sound engineer in the recording session. Booklet notes also provide invaluable information about repertoire, performers and instruments.
Audio CDs may also be stored on a Mac or Windows computer using software like Apple’s iTunes or Windows Media Player. After ‘importing’ a CD, its tracks can be transferred to mobile devices like iPods and smartphones, for listening out and about, or played directly on the computer. Sound quality need not be compromised either – ‘lossless’ import schemes preserve the integrity of the original sound, but allow a modern computer to store thousands of CDs.
Internet download services provide another way to purchase or acquire recordings. Apple’s iTunes Store and Amazon Digital Music (to name just a couple) allow albums and individual tracks to be bought and added to a music library on computer, tablet or smartphone. Even quite specialist recordings are generally available, it’s possible to hear snippets of them before buying, and they are delivered immediately after purchase. An alternative approach, streaming, is offered by companies like Spotify. With these, rather than paying to own downloaded material you instead make a monthly subscription to have access to an entire catalogue, all playable without any further outlay. It can be an excellent option for exploring and comparing many different recordings of the same repertoire, or the work of individual artists, without incurring large costs.
While mainstream download and streaming audio services offer excellent choice and instant access, there are drawbacks. First, cataloguing of work names, composers and performers is frequently inconsistent or misleading, and there is usually no equivalent of a CD’s booklet notes. Second, audio may be offered in a data-compressed form such as mp3 – the sound of a harpsichord seems to fare particularly badly from this process. High quality and lossless options are available, not least from individual record companies’ online stores, but can be more expensive and are sometimes offered in formats (like FLAC) that are not widely supported. Also, a computer (and associated screen) is typically involved in playback of downloaded or streamed material, which can be inconvenient and distracting. However, traditional hi-fi companies are now offering ‘streamer’ devices (which often look similar to other hi-fi components) that can connect wirelessly to computer audio collections as well as online services, to bring this type of audio into traditional listening environments – with potentially very high quality and good ease of use.
Yet another approach to listening is via the video sharing website YouTube. Easily accessible from computer, tablet, smartphone and some internet-enabled TVs, a good deal of harpsichord repertoire is just a search away. Spanning everything from amateur performances to record company promotional videos, the presence of video content in addition to sound can be very interesting, and helps to compensate for YouTube’s rather poor sound quality. On Mac and Windows computers, accessing a video’s Settings (usually via a small ‘cog’ icon) and choosing the highest quality on offer can help improve matters somewhat. Robin Bigwood
Freely available, many hours of C17th & C18th Harpsichord music. http://www.saladelcembalo.org
Handel Great Suites of 1720, demo recordings. http://www.afkm.com/download3.htm.
Sources of Recorded Music
An overview of period instrument CDs (1580-1830) http://www.wissensdrang.com/picds1.htm
Pages consacrées à la musique baroque et à sa discographie, http://musique.baroque.free.fr/
Presto Classical- supplier of CDs including Labels specialising in Early Music
Early music recorded on Antique Instruments. http://www.plectra.org/
Barn Cottage Records- a small UK label- Artists include chamber groups Passacaglia, Fontanella, Feinstein Ensemble, European Union Chamber Orchestra and Bardos Band, Italian harpsichordist
Anna Paradiso, cellist Jennifer Morsches and renowned flautist Martin Feinstein. http://www.barncottagerecords.co.uk/
Devine Music-Historically informed recordings, direct from the artists. http://www.devinemusic.co.uk/
Prima Facie- label specialising in Contemporary harpsichord Music http://ascrecords.com/primafacie/
‘Riverrun’, Contemporary and Pre Classical Music CD’s. http://www.rvrcd.com/home.html
Soundboard Records, Early Music, mainly solo Keyboard. http://www.soundboard-records.co.uk/