Arts: A very 20th-century period instrument

Once derided as sounding like `two skeletons copulating on a tin roof', the harpsichord has made a remarkable comeback. By Nick Kimberley
The poor harpsichord has had a hard time working its way into our affections. Thomas Beecham likened its sound to that of "two skeletons copulating on a galvanised tin roof", while the American poet Amy Lowell put it rather more subtly: "You are beautiful and faded,/ Like an opera tune/ Played upon a harpsichord." Can't sing, won't sing: supplanted by the piano with all its sonic riches, the harpsichord remains a faded relic.

Needless to say, the harpsichordist Maggie Cole disagrees. For her, the harpsichord is a living, breathing instrument, and not just because period- instrument performance has reasserted its primacy in Baroque repertoire. Tomorrow's Maggie Cole and Friends concert at London's Wigmore Hall will show that it is a 20th-century instrument as well, providing a potted history of its disinterment, from the moment, exactly 100 years before the Wigmore Hall date, when the formidable pianist Violet Gordon Woodhouse announced her conversion to the harpsichord with a performance of Bach's Triple Harpsichord Concerto (which is also in Cole's programme).

The event was one of Woodhouse's all-but-private performances, and in the Bach she was joined by Carl and Elodie Dolmetsch, anachronistically dressed in Elizabethan costume. Carl Dolmetsch is a forefather of the period-instrument movement, and Woodhouse contributed significantly to his crusade to play "early music" on the instruments for which it was written. As Cole says: "The audience for Woodhouse's concert was not huge, but every time she played, whether on the piano or the harpsichord, it made waves through the musical community."

The second step in the harpsichord's rehabilitation came when the Polish pianist Wanda Landowska, then living in Paris, turned her attention to the instrument, commissioning the Pleyel firm of piano-makers to build her an instrument in 1913. Landowska's career, as player and teacher, was more public than Woodhouse's, and she commissioned pieces from Poulenc and Falla: the latter's Harpsichord Concerto, written for Landowska, features in Cole's programme.

She acknowledges that subsequent generations of harpsichordists owe both players, particularly Landowska, a huge debt. "Wanda felt it her mission to reclaim Baroque repertoire from the piano, and she had to be very dynamic and belligerent about that in her performances and in her writings. At that point, people felt that the harpsichord was a poor substitute for the piano, that it should remain in the museum. It took years and years to change that opinion, but she did it."

Cole refers to both players by their first names, as if they're old friends. In a sense they are. Thanks to recordings, she knows both players' work (EMI will reissue some of Landowska's Bach in January): "Violet made some recordings, not many, but they're available. It's intriguing that there were these two ladies with a similar mission, and although I don't believe they ever met, they certainly knew about each other - and Violet must have heard Wanda's recordings: possibly not the other way round. Both were interesting players, but Violet's playing is wonderfully distinct from Landowska's. There's so much less of Violet's playing to hear, so it's hard to create a final opinion of her playing, but Landowska was an astoundingly fine musician. The instruments she played may sound old- fashioned to our ears, but listening beyond that, I hear the most extraordinary interpretations. She was tremendously in touch with the essence of whatever she played, and her performances survive very beautifully."

For Cole, a player well versed in the modes and manners of period instruments, the pieces that Landowska commissioned pose an intriguing problem: "There's the question of whether you play them on the kind of instrument for which they were written. Landowska performed them on harpsichords she commissioned from Pleyel - big, heavily-constructed, iron-framed instruments with many pedals. She felt that anything with fewer colours wouldn't reach out to the piano-loving audience that she was trying to convert. Ironically, that kind of instrument is as much a museum-piece to us as 18th-century models were to her generation. I've recorded the Poulenc on just such an instrument and yet, although many people disagree with me, the basic sound from instruments modelled exactly on 18th-century harpsichords is so much more beautiful than from a Pleyel-type instrument. I may not have the deep, heavy sounds that Falla and Poulenc knew, but I gain so much in clarity."

So Cole will play Falla's concerto "inauthentically" on a facsimile of a French 18th-century instrument. All three harpsichords to be heard in the concert were made by the contemporary instrument-maker Andrew Garlick. As Cole says: "Andrew and I feel that we have grown up together, he as a builder and me as a player, so the concert is also a celebration of our friendship. Each maker has a very personal approach to their instruments, so the instruments in the concert have an Andrew Garlick flavour about them, a very outgoing, singing sound."

Nor does the harpsichord's repertoire end with Falla and Poulenc. Partly because period-instrument performance has revived its fortunes, contemporary composers have taken an interest, and Cole's Wigmore Hall programme includes two modern pieces: Gyorgy Ligeti's Hungarian Rock and Gavin Bryars' After Handel's `Vesper', which Cole herself commissioned.

"What I enjoy is that composers now see it as just another instrument, with no attachment to the past," says Cole. "They use it to express whatever music it engenders in them. I approached Gavin to write a piece for me because I kept hearing music by him that moved me and I wondered what he would do with the harpsichord. He threw himself into the project, and having digested everything that I sent him to show what the instrument could do, he wrote something distinctively his own, something that takes the harpsichord away from any association with early music."

Appropriately, Cole calls her Wigmore concert "The Harpsichord Century". The skeletons, it seems, have come down from the tin roof, never to return.

Maggie Cole and Friends at the Wigmore Hall, London (0171-935 2141) tomorrow at 7.30pm