The Legendary Wanda Landowska

Landowska color photo

It’s actually quite difficult, if not impossible, for us today to put our minds into the 1940s and ‘50s when Wanda Landowska ruled the roost of harpsichordists the world over. The reason I say that is, simply, that we are so used to harpsichords today—inundated with them, overstuffed with them, so full of harpsichords that we simply take them for granted—that unless one lived through the era of her fame and popularity, as I did for eight years, it’s simply impossible to think of a time when there were only a handful of other harpsichordists in the world, none of whom quite achieved her mythic status. Landowska was considered the giant of her instrument, the pioneer, the Pure Artist, and that was all there was to it.

I only saw her once on TV, a brief portion of the performance video now available from VAI, and was mesmerized by her spider-like fingers as they crawled over the two keyboards as she had that almost-Mona Lisa smile on her face. Dressed in a plain black dress with a shawl, her hair pulled back in a bun, her beaklike nose pointed towards the keyboard, she was almost like a “character” created for the occasion, a real-life 18th-century woman somehow transported to the 20th. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that her severe dress and hair style were all part of her presentation. In concert she would have the house lights dimmed slowly until all was in darkness, somehow find her way from the wings to her harpsichord, then have the house lights suddenly turned up to reveal her already seated and starting to play. She usually had a candelabrum on her instrument as well. To a certain extent, then, her act was as much a theatrical presentation as was pianist Raymond Lewenthal’s in the 1960s, appearing in Dracula cape and top hat, similar candelabra on his piano, to play the music of Charles-Valentin Alkan.

Yet her musical background had been legitimate and rigorous. She learned piano from Jan Kleczyński and, later, from Moritz Moszkowski and composition from Heinrich Urban. She was so good by age 21 that she taught piano at the Schola Cantorum in Paris for a dozen years (1900-1912). By the end of that period, however, she became fascinated by harpsichords and learned to play them while doing research into the proper Baroque style of playing Bach, Handel, Couperin and Rameau, the four cornerstones of her repertoire. She toured European museums inspecting period harpsichords and trying them out, then bought old instruments and had Pleyel make her large touring harpsichord. The most controversial aspect of this instrument was its 16-foot stop, an octave below normal pitch, which gave her instrument a deeper, richer sound than any other.

When she died in 1959, RCA Victor put out a memorial album of which I bought a copy. How could I not? She was the Goddess of the Harpsichord, the woman who single-handedly revived interest in the harpsichord and made it a mainstream instrument. By the time she died there were also Ralph Kirkpatrick, Sylvia Marlowe and a few others, all inspired by Landowska and following in her footsteps, but it was pretty much accepted that Landowska was Mount Everest and the others were the Blue Ridge Mountains, at best.

What changed over the years wasn’t Landowska’s playing or her marvelous records (oddly enough, none of which were in stereo!) but the classical music industry’s attitudes towards the harpsichord. In an era where critics (and some fellow organists) fell over themselves praising Helmut Walcha playing Bach’s music on his own wheezy little organ in Leipzig, we were taught that Landowska used a corrupted instrument, a heavy-frame harpsichord built like a grand piano so that she could tour with it without worrying about its getting too badly damaged in transit. Even such critics as B.H. Haggin, who raved about her pre-World War II recordings of Bach and Scarlatti, complained bitterly of her “gargantuan pounding” on her post-War Pleyel. It wasn’t more than a decade and a half after her death that she was almost completely discredited by the historically-informed movement, pushed to the side as a relic of the bad old days along with Yehudi Menuhin’s and Karl Richter’s Bach performances—to say nothing of organist Virgil Fox!

But as usual, the critics were throwing out the baby with the bath water, because so far as her musical treatment of scores went there was little if any difference between pre-War and post-War Landowska. The principal difference was High Fidelity recording, that scourge of “bachelor pads” and collectors of sound effects records who enjoyed scaring the bat shit out of their neighbors by playing realistic-sounding car crashes or onrushing freight trains at full volume in their living rooms. That same mindset somehow included Landowska’s postwar recordings and live performances, which were recorded so closely by the microphone that her instrument, which formerly had sounded relatively normal, now sounded like an attack of Killer Plectrums, half-ripping the strings out of their sockets in an effort (and it was an effort) to get through the Well-Tempered Clavier, both books.

Small wonder that Landowska was demeaned by the critics. Too many of her late recordings were so loud and resonant that they could shake the windows in your living room on a cold winter’s day. But, as I say, it was more the fault of the technology than of the performer or her instrument, despite the fact that her eight-foot Pleyel had a greater resonance than most early instruments.

Most, but not all. It has since come to light, in the early 21st century, that Landowska had been right all along when she said to Pablo Casals, “You play Bach your way and I’ll play him his way.” For there were, indeed, huge eight-foot and twelve-foot French harpsichords in Couperin’s and Bach’s time, and Bach himself had played (with great delight) on some of these instruments during his infrequent excursions outside of Leipzig. Moreover, they were the instruments that Couperin composed on, and for. Note, here, the recreation by harpsichord maker Reinhard von Nagel of an eight-foot harpsichord of circa 1720:

Jochewed Schwarz harpsichord by Reinhard von Nagel

And now, look at Landowska at her Pleyel in the early 1950s. I have been told by reputable sources that she was only about 4 foot 11 inches tall, thus I have used a measuring bracket, turned it around 90 degrees, and placed it over her instrument to show that her harpsichord was, indeed, no more than eight feet long:

Landowska harpsichord

You see? They are virtually the same size, although I admit that the Pleyel’s frame is sturdier and made of thicker wood than the von Nagel recreation (and has that 16-foot stop). But that’s the only difference. Otherwise, they are very much alike.

Now, to the performance quality of Landowska’s surviving recordings. As with Virgil Fox’s Bach, there is nothing at all wrong with her musical treatment of these scores. Skide-by-side comparisons of her Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier with modern recordings show only a difference in the quality and heaviness of sonics, not musical style. In fact, on some of her recordings where the microphone was placed a bit further back, there is nothing at all wrong with either sound or style, as in her posthumously released album of Haydn Keyboard Sonatas (played alternately on harpsichord and piano, her original instrument). These are my favorite of her recordings:

BACH: Goldberg Variations; Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue; Italian Concerto / Wanda Landowska, harpsichord / EMI CDH-7610082

This is my all-time favorite of her Bach recordings, as well as of several other critics. Part of it is due to the greater distance of the microphone from the harpsichord, which presents us with a more natural and less “gargantuan” sound, but it also has to do with a lighter touch and more playful approach to these works than she exhibited after the War. This performance of the Goldberg Variations does not include all the repeats, but it is absolutely irresistible, as are her performances of the Italian Concerto and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue.

SCARLATTI: Various Sonatas / EMI 64934

Here’s yet another example of why record companies are scum and we should steal as many old recordings without paying for them as we can. The album is incomplete, omitting several Scarlatti sonatas included in the original 78-rpm set as well as the original two-LP Angel/EMI set. Granted, those extra sonatas total only about 22 minutes, which is fairly short for a second CD, but so what? Many, many other record companies have done the exact sme thing when a performance of “whatever” runs a little over 100 minutes. Still, what we have here are some of the most magical of all Landowska recordings as well as the most magical Scarlatti performances ever recorded by anyone. Hard to believe that she recorded them during the Nazi blitz of Paris, but in some of the sonatas you can still hear the dull thud of buzz-bombs outside the Salle Pleyel where the records were made.

Bach SonatasBACH: Sonatas for Violin & Keyboard, BWV 1014-1016, 1018 / Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Wanda Landowska, harpsichord / A Classical Record 45

These are lacquer recordings made in Town Hall during the live concert of December 20, 1944 when Menuhin and Landowska performed four of Bach’s five violin and keyboard sonatas. The critics were ecstatic over them, so much so that RCA Victor signed the duo to record them in the studio, but alas, they only made Sonata No. 3 before their very different but very busy concert schedules tore them apart, never to reunite. It’s a shame that they omitted Sonata No. 4 from the concert and didn’t record Sonata No. 4 first, because it is the only sonata they never made together (although Menuhin did record it with pianist Louis Kentner for RCA). The recordings languished in the collection of Landowska’s secretary and partner, Denise Restout, for decades because Landowska had listened to them once and said they were so poorly recorded that they were worthless, but audio restoration wizard Seth Winner took them, worked on them, and came up with listenable if not crystal-clear transfers. The performances are indeed magical, with Menuhin playing in a fine Bach style that would satisfy anyone but those who insist on whiny straight-tone violins. Landowska creates absolute magic in her weaving of the harpsichord parts.

Landowska Couperin0001BACH: Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue; Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: BWV 846-47, 853, 856, 861. COUPERIN: Les Folies Françaises, ou des Dominos, “Troisième Livre” XII Ordre in B minor, No. 4; Les Fastes de la Grande et Ancient Ménestrandise, “Deuxième :ivre” XI Order in C minor Nos. 2 & 3; La Favorite: “Première Livre” III Ordre in C minor; Le Dodo, ou l’Amour au Berceau “Troisieme Livre” XV Order in A minor / Wanda Landowska, harpsichord / Documents LV-953

This elusive CD contains all live performances from the early 1950s. As in her contemporary RCA recordings, the harpsichord is very close-miked, but there is an extra kick to Landowska “live” that just makes these performances sound special. If you can’t find it, you might want to obtain, as an alternative, the studio recordings of Couperin on Pearl 9096, but I still maintain that these are a bit wilder and less inhibited than the studio recordings. You can also sample some of her Couperin recordings on YouTube. This performance of the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue sounds a bit heavier-handed than the earlier EMI recording, but no less sweeping in its style.

LM6073 coverHAYDN: Sonata No. 37 in D; Sonata No. 35 in C; Sonata No. 40 in G / Wanda Landowska, harpsichord / Sonata No. 34 in E minor; Sonata No. 49 in E-flat; Andante and Variations in F minor / Wanda Landowska, piano / RCA Victor LM-6073 (LPs, out of print, but available for free download at

This is one of Landowska’s greatest late recordings—even the harpsichord performances are recorded at a bit of a distance and thus are not so heavy-handed—yet her most elusive album, as it was never reissued complete on LP or CD. The piano performance of the Sonata No. 34 in E minor was reissued as side 1 of an RCA Victrola album titled Landowska Plays Piano, but that is all. Happily, a generous gentleman who runs “The Shellackophile” website has provided free digital downloads (your choice of FLAC or mp3) complete with the 20-page full-sized booklet, the original cover art and all four record labels, at the URL listed above. Landowska’s piano playing had much in common with Maria Yudina and Glenn Gould: a light, brisk touch, clean articulation and no use of the sustain pedal, but in style she was here own woman, retaining the same buoyant rhythm and playful phrasing one heard in her Scarlatti and Bach performances.

So there you go…Landowska reassessed and exonerated of most of her musical sins. Happy listening!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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