Landowska DWK

Wanda Landowska’s recordings of both books of the well-tempered clavier constituted my introduction to revival harpsichords. I was familiar with the repertoire via Gould, and these recordings were a jarring nudge in the direction of harpsichords being my preferred instrument for the interpretation of Bach. The low sound quality was part of the experience, as you could guess from the collection of historical recordings on this site. Here Landowska plays on a Pleyel grand model, built specifically to her taste.

Book 1

Book 2

Landowska, a Jewish, Polish-born, French and German-educated mistress of the harpsichord, was a vibrant trend-setter in the revival harpsichord business. Among her students were Ruggero Gerlin, Rafael Puyana, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Eta Harich-Schneider, and Silvia Kind. She was the first to record the Goldberg variations on the harpsichord, although it appears as though she never recorded any harpsichord concertos or ensemble pieces like the Brandenburg Concertos.

These recordings vary in quality, obviously recorded over a period of years (1949-1954). Landowska’s Pleyel is an early iteration of the revival harpsichord wave, built like a piano with a harpsichord action. It includes a 16’ stop, a set of strings an octave below the normal 8’ pitch. Arnold Dolmetsch was well-meaning enough to include this feature in most of his harpsichords, although that is where the similarity in sonority ends. Pleyel harpsichords are firmer, more thunderous, and possess a substantially more detailed timbre. This is not to say that they are not capable of delicate subtlety; the final bars of fugue 10 of the second book make this contrast explicit. I am not sure whether Landowska ever recorded on other harpsichords; I wouldn’t be surprised if she ever knocked out some Rameau on a tinny yet sophisticated Dolmetsch instrument.

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