Northwest Classics is based in the Netherlands . At present, they have very limited international distribution and availability. Titles can be ordered directly from their website. The service is quick and professional.
Who? If you haven't heard the name Hans Ruckers, you're not alone. Ruckers was not a composer, and none of this music was written by him. He was the Antonio Stradivari of the harpsichord, a master builder whose career in Antwerp began around 1570. The recording is arranged in three sections, each showcasing an instrument built in the Ruckers tradition: a reconstructed 1644 (Andreas) Ruckers harpsichord, a 1747 Dulcken harpsichord, and a 1650 Couchet virginal known to be a faithful copy of an original 1570 Ruckers instrument (a virginal is similar to a harpsichord, but smaller, with its strings oriented sideways). It is probably not going too far to say that the instruments are the stars of this show, and the booklet contains many close-up, schematic, and "portrait" photographs of them. Jos van Immerseel plays them with, in his own words, "a feeling of deep respect and admiration." All this said, the music provides a wonderful opportunity to exhibit the qualities of these instruments. Aside from a Fantasy and Fugue by J. S. Bach, the music here is by relatively obscure composers, some anonymous. Each of the three mini-recitals is well formed and very satisfying on its own terms. Immerseel plays with great care, which comes across as being absorbed in the music rather than reserved or pedantic about it. Highlights include a set of variations on the famous "Folia" melody, and a very moving piece, the longest on the disc, by Armand-Louis Couperin (cuisin of the well known Francois "Le Grand").
If you love the sound of a harpsichord or, especially, if you (think you) hate it, you owe it to yourself to hear this SACD. It is, hands down, the best recording of any of these instruments, and for that matter one of the best recordings of anything at all, I have ever heard. Northwest has taken meticulous care to present a sound that is close and very revealing without being aggressive. There is none of the brittleness or edginess many would associate with harpsichord; the sound is warm, natural and complex. Nor is one left with an impression of rickety or antiquated instruments; the mechanical sounds one hears testify to their intricate workmanship. Each instrument emerges in sound with the kind of individual character revealed in the photographs depicting their exquisite painted and carved ornamentation, or the strip of antique parchment Couchet used to strengthen his soundboard. We hear the range of sounds the two harpsichords can produce, including a wonderful buff-stop on the Ruckers (small leather pads press against each string, giving the instrument a sound like that of a lute). The virginal has an extraordinary sound, strikingly different from either of the harpsichords, which almost calls to mind adjectives like "psychedelic." This SACD is a thrilling and fascinating document, achieving a rare intimacy and transparency.
A wonderful and diverse recital, expertly played. Highly recommended to fans of, or those curious about, Early Music; wildly recommended to audiophiles.
© Lyle Crawford