BACH, J.S.: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (Landowska) (1949-1951) (Mark Obert-Thorn/ Wanda Landowska) (Naxos Historical: 8.110314-15)
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1
Landowska's father was an amateur musician and lawyer in Warsaw. Her mother spoke six languages and was the first person to translate the works of Mark Twain into Polish. She also founded the first Berlitz Language School in Warsaw. Their daughter Wanda was born in Warsaw in 1879 and began to play the piano at the age of four. Her first teacher was Jan Kleczyński and she continued her tuition at the Warsaw Conservatory with Aleksander Michalowski. At seventeen Landowska went to Berlin to complete her studies in piano with Moritz Moszkowski and took lessons in composition from Heinrich Urban.
In 1900 Landowska moved to Paris where she married Henri Lew. It was Lew, whom she had met in Berlin, who encouraged her to explore music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Landowska was introduced to Vincent d'Indy, Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant who founded the Schola Cantorum in order to promote ancient music, as well as Albert Schweitzer. Between 1905 and 1909 she wrote a number of scholarly articles which were published in book form as Musique Ancienne in 1909. From 1903 she began to appear in public as a harpsichordist, and it is with this instrument that her name is usually connected, although she did continue to play the piano in public.
In 1907 Landowska visited Russia with her harpsichord, and on the second visit two years later played for Leo Tolstoy. She toured throughout Europe as a harpsichordist and just before the First World War taught at the Hochschule f?â??r Musik in Berlin. Landowska and her husband remained in Berlin, but as civil prisoners on parole, because they were French citizens. After the War, she taught harpsichord at the Conservatory in Basel for a short period and then returned to Paris, teaching at the Sorbonne and Ecole Normale de Musique.
Landowska's husband was killed in a road accident in 1919. She founded the Ecole de Musique Ancienne near Paris at Saint-Leu-la-F?â??ret where she had settled in 1925. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s she continued to tour and perform on both the harpsichord and piano, often playing works specially written for her and her harpsichord such as the Concert Champ?â?¬tre by Poulenc and the Concerto for Harpsichord by Manuel de Falla.
At the Nazi invasion of Paris, Landowska and her pupil and companion Denise Restout escaped, first to a town on the Spanish border, then to New York. In 1947 she settled in Lakeville, Connecticut, with Restout whom she had met in 1933, and remained there for the rest of her life. She continued to perform into the 1950s and became renowned as the most eminent harpsichordist of the first half of the twentieth century, and the individual responsible for resurrecting the instrument and a scholarly approach to the performance of music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Although she made recordings in New York City during the late 1940s, from around 1950 Landowska preferred to record at her home in Connecticut and made her last recordings there at the age of eighty in the spring of 1959. Between 1949 and 1954 she recorded Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier which was begun to commemorate the bicentenary of the death of Bach in 1750, and indeed, the first eight Preludes and Fugues, recorded in Victor's Studio No. 2 in New York, were issued in America during the first few months of 1950. There was then a break of nearly a year before Landowska began to record the remainder of Book I in Connecticut, completing it around the beginning of 1951.
As with all of Landowska's recordings, what strikes the listener most is her vitality, her musical integrity, and her total commitment to the music she is playing. Today's scholars and academics may frown upon her idiosyncrasies of tempo, rhythm, added notes and rubato, but as a contemporary reviewer noted at the time, 'All such features of her playing should be studied and pondered, for here is a great musician interpreting in the light of long and fruitful experience and study. Those who know the score best should forget their theories and listen to what she has to say.' Over one particular point, her rhythmic delivery of the subject of the first fugue, she has written in her defence, 'We generally hear the first F of the theme dotted, followed by thirty-seconds (demi-semi-quavers). But this theme in the authentic Bach version has neither dot nor thirty-seconds. It was while examining minutely the autograph of the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, called the Volkmann Autograph, that I observed the dot and the thirty-seconds were added afterwards, in fresher ink. In all probability this retouching was made by Altnikol or Kirnberger, doubtless in an attempt to avoid some fifths or dissonances.'
Whether one is horrified or delighted by Landowska's gargantuan Pleyel harpsichord, questions of authenticity can be silenced by her authority of delivery and the way her communicative talents hold the listener as he hears these works afresh punctuated with insights illuminated by Landowska's extensive research. It has to be said that Bach would not have recognised the custom-built, multi-pedalled, metal-framed creation built for Landowska by Pleyel in 1912. But Landowska did not believe these works were written for the smaller clavichord with its expressive possibilities and felt that her harpsichord, with its vast array of different sounds, was what this music needed. On this subject she wrote, 'The Well-Tempered Clavier, rich, colourful, and ever changing, with the broad polyphony of its fugues arrayed in choirs - how could it be confined to the limited domain of the clavichord when Bach had a harpsichord at his disposal? The rich variety of its registers, its sharp outlines and muted whispers, its fluted tones, the shifting sonorities of its coupled keyboards, now deep and golden, now silvery and birdlike, the majestic fullness of its radiant arpeggios made the harpsichord the Roi-Soleil of instruments.'
This recording was not issued in Britain until 1971 when it appeared on vinyl LP discs in electronic stereo, a synthetic process not favoured today. A CD reissue of 1989, however, seems to have been made from the same tape. In this new CD transfer the sound is the original mono and pitch variation between movements recorded at different sessions has been corrected.
In March 1950 after hearing only the first eight Preludes and Fugues a critic wrote, 'Beyond any question these records will be generally accepted as Gospel and Revelation for if there is a musical prophet in the world today, who can deny that it is Landowska?'
?é?® 2006 Jonathan Summers
Landowska's 1949 recordings of The Well-Tempered Clavier were made in RCA's New York studios on lacquer master discs, and some noise from those originals (not from the LP copies used for these transfers) remains on the current reissue. From 1950 onward, the recording venue would shift to Landowska's own home in Lakeville, Connecticut, using the new medium of magnetic tape. The original recordings featured many pitch variations between one Prelude and Fugue set and another, and even between Preludes and Fugues in the same key. These have been corrected in the present transfer. The recordings are here being presented in their original monaural guise, as opposed to the stereoization added by RCA in their CD reissues.