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Wanda Landowska - The complete piano recordings

Wanda Landowska (piano)
3CDs Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: October 2014
Total duration: 232 minutes 49 seconds

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

Wanda Landowska (1879–1959) has achieved such fame for her 20th-century revival of the harpsichord that it is sometimes forgotten that she was a very fine pianist and continued to play music of the classical period on modern piano. This set brings together, for the first time, all her recordings on that instrument.


‘Overall, Landowska’s playing is a seemingly endless source of enlightenment. Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are excellent, and these records should be heard by music college students in particular, to make them aware of other possibilities, of richer times and places’ (Gramophone)
We live in an era where the complete works of Haydn and Mozart—in both scholarly boxed-sets and schlocky compilations—can be obtained with little more than the click of a mouse, their performers ranging from authentic instrument ensembles to modern orchestras. Indeed, it is hard to fathom a time when these composers were not as popular as they are today, a time when—in some areas of the repertoire—they were downright neglected. This began to change with the advent of long-playing discs and the emergence of performers determined not only to reclaim music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as their own, but also to play this music on original instruments in an authentic style. While one cannot single out a particular individual for starting the ‘period performance’ revival, Wanda Landowska’s pioneering efforts in this area made an enormous impact on listeners and musicians alike in the first half of the twentieth century. From an early age, Landowska harboured a fascination for music from older times. Her early studies in Paris led her to the great French composers of the Baroque era like Couperin and Rameau, and a group of Bach scholars. From there she became drawn to the harpsichord. It wasn’t enough for Landowska merely to play these pieces on ancient instruments, but also to connect directly with their sound world. She devoted much time and research to studying historic approaches to articulation, registration, phrasing and orna menta tion. By the middle of the twentieth century, Landowska and the harpsichord were considered synonymous.

However, Landowska’s iconic reputation as a harpsichordist often obscures her considerable achievements at the piano, particularly as a Haydn and Mozart stylist where her theories of proper execution and ornamentation stood her apart from the main stream of the time, yet fore shadowed the historic performance Zeitgeist of the turn of the twentieth century.

Born in Warsaw on 5 July 1879, Wanda Landowska grew up surrounded by culture. Her father was a lawyer, while her mother was a linguist, fluent in six languages and the first to translate Mark Twain’s works into Polish. She began piano lessons at the ago of four. ‘My first teacher was a kind and indulgent man; he allowed me to browse freely in the music which pleased me; and what pleased me and fascinated me particularly was the music of former times,’ Landowska recalled to her assistant and companion Denise Restout. Even as a child, Landowska sensed her destiny. Frustrated with slaving over pedagogical études by Kalkbrenner and Thalberg, Landowska promised herself that one day she would play a programme devoted entirely to Bach, Mozart, Rameau and Haydn. ‘I wrote this neatly on a sheet of paper decorated with Christmas pictures and sealed it in an envelope, on which I inscribed, “To be opened when I am grown up”.’ While she went on to acquire mastery in the Romantic repertoire through her studies with the celebrated Chopin specialist Alexander Michałowski, she insisted on playing Bach as well, and included the composer’s E minor English Suite in her first public piano concert at the age of fourteen.

In 1900, Landowska eloped to Paris with journalist, actor and Hebrew ethnologist Henry Lew. The relatively new field of musicology had just begun to make an impact on the city’s culture. Landowska became involved with choirmaster Charles Bordes’ Schola Cantorum, an organization devoted to vocal and instrumental performances of music ranging from the Renaissance up to the late eighteenth century. Although familiar with authentic harpsichords, Landowska worked with the Pleyel piano firm to construct a large custom-made harpsichord with a level of power and projection suitable for concert halls. At first her recitals mainly featured the piano, with one or two works played on the harpsichord. Gradually she increased the number of harpsichord pieces so that they would fill an entire programme.

Invited to teach at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik in 1913, Landowska and Lew moved to that city. After World War I broke out, the government detained them as ‘civilian prisoners’ and they could not travel freely. During that year they had planned to move back to France. After the war, when Lew was killed in a car accident, Landowska returned to Paris, where she worked hard to consolidate her multi-faceted career as a performer, scholar, writer and teacher. She gave piano master classes at the École Normale du Musique. For a Geneva performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22 in E flat, K482, she provided programme notes that not only analyzed the concerto but also drew attention to a crucial yet oddly neglected problem of Mozart interpretation—the improvisation of ornaments.

Landowska’s influence continued to expand in the aftermath of her first American tour in 1923, inspiring important twentieth-century composers such as de Falla and Poulenc to write concertos especially for her and her harpsichord. In 1925, Landowska purchased a house north of Paris, in Saint-Leu-La-Forêt, where she established a school and built a small concert hall that housed her large collection of ancient and modern instruments.

Not counting piano rolls, Landowska made her first piano recordings in March 1937, with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 26 in D major, K537, as the featured work. Its nickname, ‘Coronation’, derives from the composer performing the piece in Frankfurt at the time of Leopold II’s 1790 coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. However, Landowska’s recording was made to celebrate King George VI’s coronation on 12 May 1937 (he already had ascended the throne following his brother Edward’s abdication in December 1936). A unique gold copy of the 78-rpm set was presented to the king. Landowska wrote about how the first and last movements related to The Marriage of Figaro: ‘The character of the motives, the abundance of witty allusions in the dialogue between the piano and other instruments, and the manner of treating the key of D major—which Mozart loved so much and which always put him in high spirits—and, above all, oblivion of everything, this divine carelessness are common to both works.’

Much critical and musicological ink has been spilled over Landowska’s original first movement cadenza, along with liberal yet taste ful and stylishly immaculate embellishments that never pull focus from Mozart’s melodic trajectory. Landowska had written about this as early as 1912 in her article ‘On the trills in Mozart’s keyboard works’, published in the Allgemeine Musikzeitung and Le Monde musical:

What would be described as the taking of ‘peculiar liberties’ was in Mozart’s time the sine qua non of every performer. No virtuoso would have dared play certain phrases of Mozart as Mozart wrote them. There are many places, especially in the slow movements of his sonatas and concertos, which are merely sketched; they are left to the performer to be worked out and ornamented. Those performances which we respect today for their literal devotion would have been called ignorant and barbaric by Mozart’s contemporaries; for it was in his art of ornamentation that the eighteenth-century interpreter submitted himself to his audience to be judged an artist of good or poor taste.

Listen, for example, to the Larghetto’s second theme, and how organic and aesthetically right Landowska’s melodic elaborations upon its reiteration sound, not to mention the extended cadenza in bars 70 and 71. The vivid 1937 sonics capture the music’s chamber-like, conversational intimacy without sacrificing any of the tonal bloom and infinite shadings of nuance Landowska coaxes from the piano.

The original shellac set’s final twelve-inch side contained the D minor Fantasia, K397, in a sublime performance that is anything but a mere ‘filler’. One might argue that time limitations may have necessitated a slightly faster pace than Landowska would have preferred, yet no sense of hurry or impatience transpires in a reading distinguished for its brooding aura, assiduous proportions and remarkable rhythmic poise in the coda.

Landowska recorded five Mozart piano sonatas in Paris in 1938. According to Restout, the Nazis ordered the metal masters to be destroyed before the discs were published, part of their attempts to ‘eradicate anything made by artists of Jewish origin’. Fortunately, the D major K576 and F major K332 escaped destruction, and were first issued on LP. Only portions of each movement from the D major K311 survive, yet they add up to a magnificent torso.

Perhaps the most succinct and accurate description of Landowska’s Mozart pianism comes from Virgil Thomson, who reviewed a recital at New York’s Town Hall which included K311:

She never plays louder than forte, not because she wishes to keep Mozart’s music small but because she wishes to keep it musical. The modern pianoforte gives another kind of sound, in many cases an ugly one, when played with arm weight. In any case, the extension of piano writing into the domain of modern power pianism, an extension that began only with Beethoven, seems inappropriate to her, as it does to many modern musicians. And so, limiting her dynamic range to approximately what was available to Mozart on the Stein fortepiano, she plays his solo sonatas for the musical contrasts that they unquestionably possess rather than for those for which they were never planned. As to rhythm, tempo, phrasing and ornamentation—all the rendering of their basic musical content—her performance is matchless. She makes them large and alive and vivid, just as she does the harpsichord works of Couperin and Scarlatti and Rameau and Bach. Her conceptions and interpretations are a lesson to any musician.

After a year and a half in the south of France on the run from the invading Nazis (who, in the meantime had looted Landowska’s home), Landowska and Restout sailed from Lisbon to New York. ‘We arrived in New York the day of Pearl Harbour and had no idea what had happened,’ recalled Restout in an interview with Allan Evans. ‘We were sent to Ellis Island and that was quite an ordeal, with thousands of Japanese who had been brought up there to be detained.’ Letters from prominent musicians procured by Landowska’s singer friend Doda Conrad helped gain their quick release. Based first in New York and later in Lakeville, Connecticut, Landowska’s American career flourished with concerts, lectures, teaching and further writing. In 1949, she celebrated her seventieth birthday by launching a recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Although she called this project ‘my last will and testament’, a significant codicil loomed on the near horizon in the form of piano recordings in May 1956 to commemorate Mozart’s Bicentennial, followed in 1957 and 1958 by the present release’s Haydn selections. At this point in her career Landowska preferred to record within the comfort of her home environment, using both her beloved custom-built Pleyel harpsichord and a remarkable 1942 Steinway Model B, now owned by pianist Alan Fraser, who attests that the instrument is in mint condition with its original hammers intact, and has a sound like no other Steinway he has heard.

In the Mozart selections, Landowska shapes the music with seemingly infinite gradations of shading and touch, impeccable timing, plus well-considered and expressive embellishments: try the K333 Sonata’s first-movement exposition for a few elaborate surprises. She arpeggiates chords with the utmost specificity, abetted by a masterful and sophisticated finger legato than enables her to employ the sustaining pedal to spare yet telling effect. In his 1991 article about Landowska’s Mozart, Donald Alfano noted how her performance of the G major Sonata, K283, illustrates how studying works in another genre enhanced Landowska’s interpretations.The pianist cites the Andante’s similarities to Sandrina’s aria ‘Geme la tortorella’ from the opera La finta giardiniera, where the character compares herself to a plaintive dove. Her Haydn is no less revelatory. The late Jan Holcman praised the ‘majestic deliberation’ and the sustained continuity and interest throughout the F minor Variations. Also, notice Landowska whimsically taking parts of the E minor Sonata finale up an octave, evoking a music box, while imbuing the repeats in the Adagio e cantabile of the E flat Sonata with fascinating melodic embellishments.

In her last years Landowska’s capacity for work and curiosity about the musical world never diminished. A student brought her Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations. Her reaction to this audacious young pianist playing one of her signature works was classic: ‘I don’t like it, but he’s wonderful.’ She accepted and admired certain artists who differed from her conceptions (like Pablo Casals, to whom she half-jokingly retorted, ‘You play Bach your way and I’ll play him his way’), yet she knew her worth. ‘Her sense of purpose and of her own destiny’, wrote Harvey Sachs in his 1982 book Virtuoso, ‘was so strong that she was able to level all the obstacles in her path; consequently, the results of her struggle have no parallel in the history of music.’

Jed Distler © 2014

A note on the recordings
The sources for these transfers were American Victor pre-war ‘Gold’ label shellacs for the Mozart concerto and Fantasy; Landowska’s own British HMV shellac test pressings for the unissued Mozart sonatas; and French RCA LP pressings for the remaining items. The LP recordings, made in Landowska’s Lakeville Connecticut home, have occasional extraneous noises, including one that sounds like a steam radiator coming on during the taping. The noises at the very end of the Haydn Sonata No 34 are in the master tape and appear on every LP release.

Mark Obert-Thorn © 2014

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