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Wanda Landowska (1879-1959): Treasury of Harpsichord Music and Dances of Ancient Poland
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Fantasia in C minor BWV 919 [1:31]*
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)

Sonata in D major L. 418 [5:35]*
Sonata in D minor L. 423 [2:09]*
Jacques Champion CHAMBONNIÈRES (1601-1672)

Sarabande in D minor [1:54]*
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)

La Dauphine [3 :24]*
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)

Les baricades mystérieuses [2 :28]*
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)

L’arlequine [1:43]*
William CROFT (1678-1727) (attrib. Henry PURCELL(1659-1695))

Ground in C minor [2:39]*
ANONYMOUS

The Nightingale [2:01]*
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)

Air and Doubles from Suite No. 5 in E major, ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ [4:22]*
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Rondo in D major, K. 485 [6:07]*
Rondo all Turca from Sonata in A major, K. 331, ‘Turkish March’ [2:20]*
Minuet in D major, K. 355 [2:04]*
Antonio VIVALDI (1685-1741) (transcribed by Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750))

Concerto No. 1 in D major [8:52]*
Michal Cleophas OGIŃSKI (1768-1833) (transcribed by Landowska)

Polonaise in A minor [5:21]**
Jacob le POLONAIS (i.e. Jakub REYS (c. 1550-c.1605) (transcribed by Landowska)

Gagliarda [2:35]**
Wanda LANDOWSKA (1879-1959)

Bourré d’Auvergne [2:56]**
Diomedes CATO (c.1560-c.1610) (transcribed by Landowska)

Chorea Polonica [2:16]**
Michal Cleophas OGIŃSKI (1768-1833) (transcribed by Landowska)

Polonaise in G major [2:22]**
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)

Air grave pour deux polonaise, from Les Indes Galantes [3:03]**
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)

Air dans le goût polonais [1 :52]**
Three Polish Dances of the 17th Century:
No.1: Jacob le POLONAIS (i.e. Jakub REYS (c. 1550-c.1605)

Courante [0:54]**
No.2 ANONYMOUS [1:41]**
No. 3 ANONYMOUS [1:36]**
Wanda LANDOWSKA (1879-1959)

The Hop (Wedding Folk Song) [3:44]**
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Mazurka No. 34 in C major, Op. 56 No. 2 [2:10]**
Wanda Landowska (harpsichord)
Recorded: 1946, Lotos Club, New York City*; May, 1951, Lakeville, Connecticut**
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111055 [77:39]

 

A recent reviewer of a collection played by one of Wanda Landowska’s last pupils declared that "Landowska’s reissued recordings act as stern warnings to all would-be harpsichordists" and talked of "the monstrous anachronisms Landowska favoured". That the musician who did most to pioneer the modern revival of the harpsichord should now be regarded, in some quarters, as "a stern warning" to her would-be successors, an object lesson in what not to do, and should be viewed, as worthy of mockery, is a sad state of affairs.

Of course, her playing fails most of the tests of modern ‘historically informed’ performance on the harpsichord. Of course, the instrument she favoured, a two-manual Pleyel with a cast-iron frame, pedals and a sixteen-foot stop was quite unlike those on which most of her repertoire would originally have been performed. Of course, her frequent changes of registration strike us as excessive in the light of current ‘historically-informed’ styles of harpsichord playing. Of course, her use of ornamentation now strikes us as altogether inappropriate, historically speaking. Of course, her use of rubato strongly inclines to the romantic. And yet …

However ‘inauthentic’ her playing may be in one sense, it surely has ‘authenticity’ of another sort and has it to a high degree. One of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of the adjective ‘authentic’ is as a description of that which is "real, actual, genuine" as opposed to pretended. Almost everywhere Landowska’s playing persuades one of its profound sincerity, of its coherence as a genuine, individual vision of what the music means.

The rhythmic drive and clarity of her playing; a determination to do justice to what she perceives as the underlying passions of the music; her sheer love of the potentials of the instrument to which she was so committed; all this gives an unmistakably personal quality to her playing. There is a danger that everything begins to sound like Landowska – that there aren’t sufficient stylistic distinctions between the various composers she performs. But it isn’t a danger to which she too often falls victim.

In any case, on the CD under review quite a lot of the music is, in effect, Landowska’s. The CD gathers the contents (all but a performance of Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat, which is scheduled for inclusion on a later Naxos CD) of two LPs: A Treasury of Harpsichord Music(released 1957) and Landowska Plays for Paderewski (1951). The second of these was reissued in 1956 as Dances of Poland and includes many transcriptions (and one composition) by Landowska, of music originally written for lute or piano, in the performing of which she allows full rein to her fascination with her instrument’s range of colours. Purists will find some of the effects outrageous! Jonathan Summers’ sleeve notes quote her observation that "the harpsichord, reservoir of sharp colours, flute, strings, nasal oboes, bagpipes, contrabass, is the ideal instrument to render folk music. You will hear it in The Hop, the most authentic, the most striking mazurka that ever existed". And certainly one does! The folk elements in Oginski’s polonaises originally written for piano (and in the Chopin Mazurka!) are given their fair share of "nasal oboes" and "sharp colours" as performed on Landowska’s harpsichord. She is clearly much attracted by the music of her native Poland and there is an air of patriotic affirmation, of loving nostalgia, to much of her playing. So much so that she quite misses the mockery in the ‘Polish airs’ of Rameau and Couperin.

The first half of the CD’s programme (corresponding to A Treasury of Harpsichord Music) contains some wonderfully disciplined and energetic playing. The fleetness and sureness of her fingering in Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith is remarkable; in the first of the Scarlatti sonatas the controlled rhythmic power is very impressive; her reading of Mozart’s Minuet (K. 355) is hypnotic. In the Vivaldi transcription of Bach, the sheer fun of the opening allegro is succeeded by a beautiful responsiveness to the melodic line of the larghetto.

No would-be harpsichordist of our own day is likely to take Landowska as his or her model. That isn’t, though, to say that she might not have things to teach us and pleasures to give us. We need only think of her as dangerous example if we think her way of playing is likely to ‘mislead’ her successors into abandoning most of what modern scholarship has taught them, which it obviously isn’t. Surely we are not faced with mutually exclusive alternatives between which, as listeners, we must choose. If we can enjoy Stokowski’s arrangements of Bach as well as performances informed by modern scholarship and played on period instruments – and surely we can and should – then it is hard to see why we can’t find a place for Landowska’s intelligent, idiosyncratic readings of the music she so loved. There are many kinds of truths to be found in Bach, Scarlatti etc and hers is one of them.

Glyn Pursglove

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

 

 



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