> Wanda Landowska plays Bach [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Wanda Landowska plays Bach
J S BACH (1685-1750)

Toccata in D Major BWV 912
English Suite No 2 in A Minor BWV 807
French Suite No 6 in E Major BWV 817
Concerto No 1 in D Minor
Wanda Landowska, harpsichord
String Ensemble with Denise Restout harpsichord continuo conducted by Eugène Bigot
Recorded 1936 (Toccata, French Suite), 1938 (Concerto) and 1947 (English Suite – live from the Frick Museum, New York)
GEM 0169 [73’13]


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Pearl has now built up a formidable corpus of reissues devoted to the art of the remarkable Wanda Landowska and her outsize Pleyel. Each disc bears the weight of her idiosyncratic but unignorably illuminating musicality and this latest issue is especially valuable for presenting, in such good sound, a March 1947 performance of the English Suite No 2 in recital at the Frick Museum, New York. It is intelligently complemented by the Sixth French Suite, the Toccata in D Major and a Concerto, the D Minor, all commercial recordings from 1936-38. The last is further illuminated by the detailed recording details provided by Landowska protégé Denise Restout who, it now emerges for probably the first time, played Harpsichord basso continuo at the recording sessions.

The Toccata emerges in splendid relief, with a dramatic opening movement and an Allegro replete with almost saturnine trills but reaches a peak of eloquence in the long fourth movement where her control is superb. And in the final Fuga how humorously she brings out the emergent voicings. The English Suite, as I say, is in excellent sound. She’d already recorded it, in Paris in 1936 but this live Frick performance has, as that earlier commercial recording had not, all the repeats. Some coughs and a few minor scuffs at the beginning of the Bourrée I are all that will intrude, Pearl having done a clearly excellent job with some pitching and static problems elsewhere through judicious use of equalization. Landowska is rhythmically emphatic in the Prelude, serves up some extreme filigree treble in the Courante and some freely moving dramatic bass sonority in the Sarabande. She is implacably vivacious in the Bourrée II and performs with imaginative and intellectually satisfying commitment. The French Suite shows similar virtues from the previous decade; the oppositional material of the Sarabande is swept up by her into a mini-tableaux of real theatricality whilst the concluding Gigue is animated, technically adroit and played with fiery zest.

The Concerto was recorded over several days in December 1938. Bigot was something of a discographic monopolist of this work, inasmuch as he recorded it three times. Restout tactfully omits to mention the name of the pianist with whom Bigot had previously recorded the work "without any special knowledge of Bach’s style…in a straight-forward manner" (it was actually that fine musician Marguerite Roesgen-Champion accompanied by the Lamoureux). Bigot himself went on to record it again with Alexander Borovsky in the Busoni arrangement. A photograph from the recording sessions with Landowska is reproduced – as is Restout’s recollection of the composition of the orchestra, a very small, authentically sized 8 strings - 2,2,2,1,1. A quick head count of the visible players seems to show a slight discrepancy but she was there and it doesn’t much matter – the band is the antithesis of the Stokowski-Wood-Koussevitsky School of 1930s Bach playing. There is tremendous vigour and drive in the opening movement with the orchestra responsive to the obviously unaccustomed dynamics of the harpsichord-strings relationship. She emphasizes the finality of the movement with a lengthy final dying note, sustained for a daring time. What elevates the slow movement is the almost improvisatory element of her playing, one that, despite the anachronistic size of her chosen instrument, never renders her playing either mechanical or predictable. Even if one tends to side more with a pianist contemporary, say Harold Samuel, with Landowska one always consumed by the invincible life of her playing, its glinting and darkening truth and its power still to affirm and move.

Jonathan Woolf

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