Wanda Landowska = Dances of Poland & A Treasury of Harpsichord Music – Testament

by | Feb 28, 2006 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Wanda Landowska = Dances of Poland & A Treasury of Harpsichord Music.  OGINSKI: Polonaise in A Minor; Polonaise in G Major; POLONAIS: Gagliardi; LANDOWSKA: Bourree D’Auvergne; 3 Polish Dances; The Hop; CATO: Chorea Polonica; RAMEAU: Air grave pour les deux Polonois; La Dauphine; COUPERIN: Air dans le gout Polonois; Les Barricades Misterieuses; L’Arlequine; CHOPIN: Mazurka in C, OP. 56, No. 2; SCARLATTI: Sonata in D; Sonata in D Minor; PURCELL: Ground in C Minor; HANDEL: Harmonious Blacksmith from Suite No. 5; MOZART: Turkish March; Menuetto in D, K. 355; Rondo in D, K. 485; BACH: Concerto in D after Vivaldi; ANON: The Nightingale – Wanda Landowska, harpsichord Pleyel

Testament SBT 1380,  74:47  (Distrib. Harmonia mundi) ****:

No matter how far the authenticity movement progresses, at some point it must pay homage to the artistry of Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), the great Polish pianist whose cultivation of the harpsichord–at the suggestion of Albert Schweitzer — revolutionized Baroque and pre-Classical performance practice for all time.  I recall my purchase at Sam Goody’s many years ago of a German Electrola LP which contained Landowska’s performances of the Mozart Coronation Concerto and the Haydn D Major Concerto. Years later, I interviewed harpsichord virtuoso Igor Kipnis (also my colleague on “First Hearing”) on the subject of Landowska. “Whatever you may criticize about her approach,” Kipnis proffered, “you cannot deny the power of her rhythm. She had an uncanny sense of motor control and inner pulse. Every piece generates excitement, even if you totally disagree about ornamentation, articulation of the filigree, etc. Musically, she is always there, the intensity and sense of affect undeniable.”

I can hardly improve upon Kipnis’ observations, except to say that I loved his diaphanous rendition of Couperin’s  Les Barricades Misterieuses (on Epic LP) beyond anyone else’s; in comparison, the slow Landowska version feels like lead. Contemporary musicians sarcastically called the harpsichord a cage of flies, but Landowska’s application of mazurka and polonaise rhythm and her innate nobility of line do much to lift the thick-blooded Pleyel into the musical ether. [Some have called her Pleyel “a piano masquerading as a harpsichord”…Ed.] Listen to Chopin on the harpsichord, and he sounds a natural extension of the Oginski pieces and especially the traditional Hop, which Landowska arranged for performance. Much harpsichord repertory continues the lutenist tradition in Italy which found its way to Spanish and British virginals. Thus, the anonymous piece The Nightingale, which one critic calls a harbinger of Romanticism.

The alternation of the two harpsichord manuals creates all kinds of color and dynamic variation, and the French pieces and the duet by Purcell benefit. The rolling chords and suspensions of Les Dauphine make us crave Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. The plastic and martial figures in Scarlatti’s D Major (L. 418) Sonata bounce with a rustic elegance that might have impressed Haydn. How introspective is the D Minor (L. 423) Sonata, whose passing dissonances belie its era of origin. When we reach Handel, the heaviness passes away, and a deft, scintillating light permeates Landowska’s figures. Her glittering, exciting performance of Mozart’s Turkish March from the A Major Sonata, K. 331 could convince anyone to take up the instrument.  The Menuetto, whose exotic harmonies lulled Tchaikovsky, emerge no less beguiling to us. The Rondo in D, which Myra Hess also championed, is the second most extended piece on the album. The Alberti bass, as divided from the treble by a second manual, creates a true duet, a concerto without orchestra. Bach’s klavier arrangement (BWV 972) of Vivaldi’s Concerto, Op. 3, No. 9 had piano adherents such as Brailowsky, who also inscribed it for RCA. The Landowska rendition enjoys both scale and elan, a muscular energy and directness of attack that can only be called symphonic.  The Larghetto might be Cleopatra strumming a soothing progression of harmonies for a troubled Marc Antony.

The source of half of the recordings (RCA LM 1217) are from 1946 sessions; the Dances of Poland derive from 1951 inscriptions made in honor of the tenth anniversary of the death of Ignaz Jan Paderewski.  He would have smiled, I am sure, at his fellow Romantic’s attempt to fuse the present with the past in music – aware that Landowska, like her colleague Cortot, could be magnificent even when completely wrong musicologically.

— Gary Lemco

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