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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
CD 1 [63:59)
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 BWV 846-869 (1722) 
Rec. March 1949 in RCA Studio B, New York, New York and Feb 1951, Lakeville, Connecticut 

CD 2 [68:42]
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 BWV 846-869 (1722)
Rec. February 1951 in Lakeville, Connecticut
CD 3 [54:30]
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 BWV 870-893 (1738-1742) 
Rec. June 1951 to March 1954, Lakeville, Connecticut

CD 4 [64:08]  
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 BWV 870-893 (1738-1742) 
Rec. June 1951 to March 1954, Lakeville, Connecticut

CD 5 [61:43]  
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 BWV 870-893 (1738-1742) 
Rec. June 1951 to March 1954, Lakeville, Connecticut

CD 6 [64:40]
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 1(1741-1742) [48:44]
Rec. New York, 5–12 June 1945 

Concerto in D major after Vivaldi, BWV 972 (1708-1717) [8:43] 
Rec. 2 July 1946, Lotus Club, New York City 

Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 906 (ca.1738) [3:43] 
Rec. Lakeville, Connecticut, 1957

Prelude, Fugue and Allegro for Lute in E flat major, BWV 998 (ca.1740) [12:40] 
Rec. 20 February 1946, Lotus Club, New York City 

CD 7 [64:35]
Two-Part Inventions BWV 772-786 (1723)
Rec. Lakeville, Connecticut (1954 - 1955)

Fantasie in C minor, BWV 919 (after 1712) [1:25] 
Rec. 2 May 1946, Lotus Club, New York City 
Three-Part Inventions, BWV 787-801 (1723)
Rec. Lakeville, Connecticut (1958 - 1959) 
Capriccio in B flat major on the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother, BWV 992 (ca.1704) [11:12] 
Rec. 11-12 September 1957, Lakeville, Connecticut
Partita for Keyboard no 2 in C minor, BWV 826 (1726-1731) [19:25] 
Rec. February and March 1957, Lakeville, Connecticut
Wanda Landowska, harpsichord

ADD
RCA RED SEAL 82876-67891-2 LC 00316 [7 CDs: 63:59 + 68:42 + 54:30 + 64:08 + 61:43 + 64:40 + 64:35]   

I’ve asked the question before when it comes to this kind of reissue: what is greatness? Why is it that we keep returning to tatty old recordings of what my mate Joost the jocular composer calls ‘fossils’? We should all know the story of Wanda Landowska’s championing of her massive Pleyel harpsichord, her influence as a teacher, her (and her instrument’s) dramatic escape from the Nazi invasion of France. The booklet notes also educate us to her enlightened attitude to her instrument: ‘The Harpsichord is not an imperfect forerunner of the modern piano and the piano is not an improvement on the harpsichord. They are two entirely different instruments.’ She viewed music as a continuum, not as something ‘historic’: ‘If a work was once really alive and fulfilled all the conditions of life when it was new, there is no reason for it to die.’ Her perfectionism was renowned, and all of these things – her humanity, intelligence, musicianship, sympathy to the composer’s text and sheer joy in performing all resonate through these recordings. Even if they had been recorded through an old sock we could find value in these performances. If harpsichordists great and the good of the second half of the 20th century are the leaves and branches, and the great bewigged player composers of the past are the roots, then Landowska is the trunk which holds them all together. We listen to Landowska for the same reason we keep on visiting another tatty old survivor of WWII; St Paul’s Cathedral. Why? Because there is spectacle, grandeur, elegant proportion and the staggering virtuosity of its creator, and because – even if we wanted to, we couldn’t reproduce it now even if we tried.
 
Anyone fortunate enough to find themselves in possession of this 7 CD box might do well to break themselves in gently with some of the smaller works. CD 6 is one of the more attractively programmed of the set, and the Concerto BWV 977 provides an excellent introduction to Landowska’s art. It opens like a Handel anthem, drawing one in to a spectacular Allegro which drives through like a Welsh rugby forward. Strangely, the final chord seems to have been plucked from a different recording, but we’ll let that pass. The larghetto strums like an auto-harp, and shows that the Pleyel instrument is capable of more than just thundering bass registers and incredible sustaining power. The final Allegro is playful, like something from a Scarlatti sonata, and with some deft shifts in register the Pleyel harpsichord showers us in a variety of tonal colours – all qualities which reinforce Landowska’s vast interpretations of the ‘48’, and of course the Goldberg Variations.
 
One of my favourite Bach keyboard works, BWV 988, the Goldberg Variations, seems to have been taken over by versions for piano in my collection. A candlelit performance by Trevor Pinnock at Dyrham Park House lives on in the memory however, and Landowska’s performance is stately to say the least. Her opening tempi are withheld, building the foundations of an interpretation which arches over the entire set of variations, which is the way it should be. The full weight of the Pleyel instrument is also brought forth in measured doses, and the simpler textures of the two-part variations are unencumbered by extraneous and unnecessary effects. Landmarks along the way stand like granite monuments in the musical landscape, and Variation 21; Canone alla settima, and the fantasia-like Variation 25 are both forward looking and somehow nostalgic. The story is a long and serious one, but the listener is encouraged at each turn by lighter moments, and with Variation 26 we are homeward bound and no mistake. The arrival of the Quodlibet, with its little song quotations is our salvation, and the final Aria our ‘Memento Mori’. It is Bach’s epic novel in musical form, and you will be hard put to find a better storyteller than Landowska.
 
All of us amateur piano players have picked our way through the Two-Part Inventions, but Wanda Landowska has the knack of endowing even these relatively simple musical sketches with poetry and style. Lightness of phrasing and consistency of articulation are Landowska’s signature both here and in the Three-Part Inventions, and Bach’s eloquence with almost the minimum of means needs no better advocate. The Fantasia BWV 919 suffers from a slightly bumpy transfer, but is otherwise a fine rendition. The later 1957 recordings benefit from better preserved sources, but with a slightly nasal balance which is a change from the more gutsy but rougher earlier recordings. In that regard the Capriccio BWV 992 is easier listening but a little less characterful. Landowska’s variety in colour in registering is particularly attractive here, and entirely appropriate to the chromatic harmonies and descending, tragically sighing melodic lines and bases of the mood of ‘Departure’ and the pert calls of the final cornetta di postiglione.
 
I can imagine Wanda tutting a little (‘you are too kind my dear boy’), but I do find her Partita No. 2 BWV 826 to be something of a masterpiece. The little spread chords which echo on in the Allemande after those of the impressive opening are a lovely touch, her voicing in the Courante is immaculate, and the irrepressible bounce of the Capriccio is a delight.
 
So to the main meat of this issue, which is the complete recording of the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ which Wanda Landowska made between 1949 and 1954 at her own home in Lakeville, Connecticut. I must admit to being somewhat pre-programmed by Gustav Leonhardt’s 1973 recordings, with which I have lived since some initial hard-won taping sessions from Radio 3, which broadcast them along with Handel’s Concerti Grossi as some ungodly hour on (I seem to remember) a sequence of Saturday mornings way back when. Now a proud owner of that superb LP box, I was intrigued to hear how Landowska’s approach compliments, rather than fights with my favourite from those youthfully uncritical ears and years. The sheer sustaining power and range of the Pleyel harpsichord allows Landowska to indulge in some licence here and there. Take the treatment of the bass in the very first C major prelude in Book I, which she endows with an apparent anticipatory syncopation not to be found in the score. Far from being scandalised by such things I find myself refreshed, entertained and moved by Landowska’s interpretations. Those of you who are, for instance, attracted by Sviatoslav Richter’s recordings (also on RCA) will know what I mean about there being some sense of ‘soul’ in these performances. Dipping in at the listening booth, have a try of Disc 1 track 8, the Fugue IV in C sharp minor, and you will see what I mean. Landowska and Richter share that ability to sustain a slow tempo with an imperturbable intensity which will put curls into straight hair. Your perm thus assured, you can go on to enjoy the growling Pleyel bass in a low-register version of Prelude and fugue IV in D minor (tracks 11 and 12). From 1946 to 1951 there is a fairly large shift in perspective from track 17 (Prelude IX in E major) which is a shame, but the ear soon adjusts to the change in position and slightly boxier acoustic effect from Landowska’s study. Pester the shopkeeper to put on disc two and listen to track 4, the Fugue XIV in F sharp minor – you must agree that the bass entries are entirely orchestral in effect. The contrasts between gentle, softer moments (Prelude and Fugue XVI in G minor), joyous abandon (Prelude XXI in B flat), moody darkness (Prelude XXII in B-Flat minor) and a general sense of drama and occasion all come through the admittedly somewhat thin and distant recordings from these later sessions.
 
Book II gives a more muffled initial impression, but like all these recordings, the ear is drawn more to the fascination of the music than the inconsistencies in the taping. There are some moments throughout this whole set – obviously where a gap has fallen between sessions – where the tuning of the harpsichord doesn’t quite match. Again, the ear forgives and forgets. For some reason, Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier receives less positive press than Book I, but Landowska pays no less attention to detail. Spread over 3 CDs it is something of a tour de force, but I love the bell-like sustain in Prelude III in C-Sharp major, the sheer drama of Prelude VI in D minor (a favourite Bach key) and the chromatic dissonances in the subsequent fugue – each line of which has clarity and meaning.
 
I could go on, but you will have guessed by now that I am a great fan of the great Landowska. These are of course hardly recordings of demonstration quality. If you are a romantic soul who occasionally likes to sit in semi-candlelit gloom with a glass of good port and a well written novel, then these performances of Bach will enhance that feeling of a lost era of steady timelessness. Those of you with interiors of minimalist and neon-sparkling chrome and white may be surprised to find it fits in there just as well – such is the nature of classic musicianship, master of itself and follower of no fashion or transient trend. Landowska illustrates aspects of Bach which, while by no means authentic by today’s standards, nonetheless sound ‘right’ at her hands. The grandeur of the Pleyel harpsichord will not be to everyone’s taste, but one has to admit that Landowska knows how to tease every colour and mood from this instrument, and in so doing makes even an extended listening session something of a feast for the receptive mind. ‘Music grows old only if it is neglected – like a woman who is no longer loved. Take an interest in her and she will become young again.’ At somewhere just under three pounds a disc this box comes in as something of a bargain, so, make the most of it!
 
Dominy Clements
 

 

 



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