I don't believe in "progress" in the arts. It's not as if anyone woke up one spring morning in 1594 and thought, "Now that Palestrina is out of the way, we're done with the Renaissance and we can start a transitional period that will ultimately lead to Beethoven." Each moment in music history is a pinnacle, the sum of all the effort and inspiration of the current and preceding generations. The same goes for musical instruments -- Cristofori's fortepiano wasn't "primitive" or even "transitional", it stands as a brilliant accomplishment (even if Cristofori himself might have thought the invention could be developed further).
Therefore there's really nothing like early music performed on original instruments. To have (as much as possible) the original wood and wire under the hands of a performer who is a skillful interpreter and scholar is about as close as we can get to stepping back in time and hearing great music as it was meant to be heard. So I considered it a privilege to be asked to make a recording of Arthur Haas playing music of the golden age of the harpsichord, on one of the finest surviving original instruments.
The harpsichord on this recording was built in 1707 by Nicolas Dumont. It is the "newest" of the three Dumont instruments that survive today, and represents the culmination of the experience of that important Parisian maker. Modern scholars and harpsichord makers consider it a particularly significant example, as it is the earliest instrument that displays the characteristics of the "classic" French harpsichord of the 18th century. Several modern harpsichord makers have studied the 1707 Dumont extensively, and made very successful copies of it. One of these builders is John Phillips of Berkeley, California, and John worked on this recording project, both as harpsichord technician and session producer.
I have known John for many years and worked alongside him on many projects. I am also intimately familiar with his instruments, particularly his copies of the Dumont, so it was fascinating to join him for this project, when we would be hearing the original.
A John Phillips Dumont copy is everything one could want from a new harpsichord -- beautiful, even tone, effortless and reliable action, flawless craftsmanship, and stunning decoration. An antique musical instrument is usually not like that -- it is like a cranky elderly cat: it has peculiarities, it has moods, and sooner or later, like it or not, we will learn its requirements and deal with it on its own terms. The Dumont did not disappoint in that regard.
One odd thing we quickly discovered was that this instrument can hardly be played in what we consider a normal way. Part of the instrument is an elegant painted and gilded wooden stand, which has a sort of apron running around the circumference. This apron seems to make it impossible to sit and play -- when seated at the keyboard, there is no place for the knees. What was the performer supposed to do -- play standing up, bent over? kneel on a cushion? sit away from the instrument and lean far forward? Needless to say, a modern builder would have designed a stand that was ergonomically as well as visually satisfying, but, as I say, when dealing with original instruments, we must approach them on their own terms. The best we could do was to pull the harpsichord partly off its stand, so that Arthur could sit at a comfortable height and still reach the keys.
In terms of sound, what an antique instrument has, which is often lacking in a modern copy, is a great deal of "character". The sound of the Dumont is certainly beautiful, but not even -- it has four distinct "vocal" ranges, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, each with a unique personality. The performer must learn these personalities, and find ways to let them work together for a common good.
Arthur Haas is one of the most sensitive, imaginative harpsichordists I know, and working with him was a pleasure. He is a specialist in this type of music, having lived and performed in France for many years, and was masterfully prepared for this recording.
I would also like to mention the owner of the instrument, Karen Flint. She is a harpsichordist of considerable renown herself, and is Artistic Director of the early music ensemble Brandywine Baroque. She contributed many excellent musical ideas at the recording session, and she and her husband Peter were gracious and generous hosts. The recording, which is published on Brandywine Baroque's label, is one of the most visually attractive CD packages I have seen.
To make this recording, I used a pair of Neumann KM140 microphones in a near-coincident configuration, a Grace Design Lunatec V3 preamplifier/digital converter, and an Alesis Masterlink.