Polish pianist and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (1879- 1959) remains in history as the person largely responsible for reviving interest in the harpsichord in the 20th century. Her monumental recordings on her custom-made Pleyel harpsichord- including the first ever recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on a harpsichord- paved the road for the modern renaissance of early keyboard music. In this selection of remastered recordings first published in the 1980s, she explores the instrument’s sonic capabilities through a selection from Domenico Scarlatti’s monumental collection of keyboard sonatas.
I first came across Landowska on an IDAGIO playlist all about the extremes of Bach interpretations. Her recording of the opening Aria from the Goldberg Variations was pinned against Glenn Gould’s equally influential interpretation, and so I thought I would explore what the “other end” would be to Gould’s playing. What I found instead was a performer who is just as unapologetic about her unique interpretational choices, a performer who’s not afraid to explore the limits of her instrument and deliver deeply personal and instinctive renditions of these pieces. Admittedly, I can’t say I agree with all her decisions; her sometimes uncalled-for repeats of specific phrases just to try out different tone colours strikes me as a daring one, while her many ornaments have been questioned over the years- I leave here for reference here her rendition of K. 380 found in this recording, which can be compared against Horowitz’s as a “counterargument”. However, as I do with almost all of Gould’s recordings, I will agree to disagree and simply accept her interpretations for what they are, not what they’re not.
The first thing that stood out to me from Landowska’s playing was her experimentation with registration, inspired by the increased capabilities of her instrument compared to earlier models. After touring several museums and trying out their harpsichords, she eventually asked from Pleyel to construct for her a special double- manual harpsichord, which would include, among other things, a 16- foot stop that makes the sound rich and imposing. You can hear the expansion of the sound palette in sonata K. 397, for example, where the double manual mechanism allows Landowska to quickly jump from one stop to another effortlessly and effectively. What is more, her reliance on effects like the lute stop to transition to a softer sound or create antiphonal effects, such as in K.430 and K.256, is certainly a choice that startled me first hearing this recording. Especially marvellous are the effects of crescendo through a build-up of texture achieved in K.519 as Landowska adds in stops gradually while playing, an effect impossible to achieve on plenty of older instruments.
While it’s an approach to registration I can’t say I’ve encountered that much in recent harpsichord recordings- a consequence perhaps of the turn towards the sound world of the instruments of the time-, I can see what Landowska’s intentions are; partly due to the not-so-sensitive recording equipment of the time, partly due to a desire for the harpsichord to make a grand re-entrance to gain widespread popularity, she’s striving to showcase as varied a sound as possible to remind people of the expressive capabilities of the instrument, while also doing Scarlatti’s sonatas as much justice as possible on the instrument they were originally conceived for.
To this effort we can add, I believe, her full, legato touch, which seems to be at times on the verge of overpowering the character of the music, without ever sounding heavy or weighty, however. There is not as great an attention to variations in articulation as with later recordings, however I don’t believe it was something that concerned her as deeply as other matters, namely an individualized interpretation of the work and an emphasis on timbral contrast. It could also be due to the limitations of the technology that she chose not to focus all that much on that aspect of her playing, although I doubt that would’ve been a big factor considering how clearly most of her playing comes through in these recordings. In any case, she seems to want to ring out as much sound as possible from the harpsichord strings, producing a sound that gently envelops you the more you hear.
All in all, there is no doubt about the importance of these recordings for the evolution of early music performance. Landowska is exhibiting a level of emotional truth and originality that few can be said to have surpassed after her. To conclude this review, I would like to briefly linger on two sonatas, K. 234 and K. 492. What I find especially touching about these sonatas is the way that all the things I talked about previously, her constant changes of texture, her rich sonority and her touch, seem to culminate in perfect balance in these two sonatas. Her playing here reaches such a level of musicality that I believe these two sonatas could sum up the bulk of her efforts as a harpsichordist. A definite gem for everyone’s record collection.
Phoebus Kyriakoudis, November 2020
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References  Encyclopedia.com. 2020. Wanda Landowska | Encyclopedia.Com. [online]