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Wanda Landowska

(1879 - 1959)


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One of the many debts of gratitude we owe to Wanda Landowska is for her having viewed music as a continuum rather than a progressing art ever perfecting itself. Due to this approach she understood that great work is achieved in any period and embodies a synthesis of preceding scores as well as a reflection of its own age, if not that of a vision beyond its own present. Therefore in order to recreate the spirit behind the music, Landowska immersed herself into a lifelong study of performance practice and the style surrounding works in other artistic disciplines. This became not a final goal but a point of departure, as she eventually came to understand the comedies of Moliere and Marivaux, the paintings of Watteau as she did her Couperin and Bach.

One view of Landowska's musical impact comes from Denise Restout, who worked with the harpsichordist for some twenty-six years. To hear the Goldberg Variations played for the first time this century on the harpsichord, one of Landowska's great achievements, was an astonishing experience in which Restout found herself "stunned more than anything else. It was like being in front of one of the greatest works of nature." Restout became her assistant, and now, an octogenarian, possesses a lucid ability to recall her mentor's life and art. While Restout supervised and edited one volume of Landowska's writings, there is a great deal awaiting publication. This is an urgent matter as she is compelled to teach daily to maintain herself, unable to devote all her efforts to produce a biography of Landowska and edit her unpublished writings and correspondence. In a lengthy interview with Restout in Landowska's house in Lakeville, Connecticut, we learn of events in Landowska's life which clarify how her art came into being.

A desire to explore the music for her instrument constantly drew Landowska to explore libraries, "even when she was on tour" as Restout pointed out, in order to copy manuscripts. While her scholarship was impeccable, she was and is often criticized, even for her instrument, especially its use of a 16 foot stop. While this overlooks the fact that Handel had such a harpsichord and it is present on English and German models from the 18th century, Restout also added that the current inclination for copying surviving French models is in itself suspect: "Don't the instrument makers know that during the Revolution the large harpsichords owned by the wealthy were destroyed? Landowska never took authenticity for a god. She was trying to bring the music to life." How the quest for recreating music of the past initiated was due to Landowska's genius and attraction to this forgotten and lost repertoire. Her home environment was atypical and nurturing for her art: Landowska's father was a lawyer in Warsaw while her mother, an expert in six languages, was the first to translate Mark Twain into Polish. Restout spoke of her mentor's formation:

"As a little girl her teacher was a Chopin player, Michalowski [who also taught Levitski and Sofronitsky]. She was at first educated in that school. But from a very early age, her personal taste was for music of older times. She once heard a pianist play a piece by Rameau, which was very rare in those times, and she was fascinated, she loved it. Her teachers realized that she was really a musical genius and that they should not impose on her too much. Even her first teacher Klenczynski [who interviewed Chopin's associates for his study of the composer] was much too lenient and Wanda's mother said she could not continue with him- 'he will let you do anything you want and it should not be done that way.' So she went to Michalowski who was much more strict with her but understood who she was and let her play Bach. These men did not know the real interpretation of Bach. It was the time when the Bach tradition was gone. She studied Chopin with him and was a wonderful Chopin player herself and people would have given anything to have her record or play Chopin more often. There was a conflict in this way as she was brought up in the late Romantic tradition and wanting to do something else- to go back to the old masters. But what happened to her was that first of all, when she was about sixteen she developed a small growth in the hand. What was she going to do? She had a lovely voice and even thought of becoming a singer. But her mother sent her to Berlin to study composition and she studied with Urban, who had been the teacher of Paderewski. While she studied composition in Berlin and her hand was finally better and she could play again, she met a young Polish man who became her husband- Henry Lew. He was not exactly a musician but was interested in Polish folklore, mostly a writer. And he understood that she would not develop in the way she wanted to go if she stayed in Berlin. He knew that in Paris she would have many more chances. So they went to Paris and married, and there she was introduced to the Schola Cantorum, where there was Vincent D'Indy and all the great musicologists of the day, Pirro, and Albert Schweitzer, who came from Alsace very often to play organ at their concerts. So she was soon drawn into that circle in Paris where all the research was done into the work of Bach but not the harpsichord works, mostly the Cantatas, the Passions and orchestral works. She was introduced to French music, to Couperin and Rameau. But she knew the piano was not the right instrument for it so she visited all the museums in Europe with old instruments and she even took the chief engineer of Pleyel with her to take notes and measurements of all the instruments in Brussels, in Leipzig, in England. Because the thing she discovered very quickly was that there were no harpsichords that were alike. Pianos are all made in a series and are alike but not harpsichords. Some builders would have small instruments, others large, some builders were good, others bad, and in all kinds of instruments from the 16th century to the end of the 18th century there were improvements in the building. So she asked this man to study all of this because when she arrived in Paris in 1900 Pleyel had already built a harpsichord, smaller than this [her model], which was not bad but not very good. Louis Diemer [Alfred Cortot's teacher] played on it, but he was a pianist who played old music but did not go into the research of how to play it and it sounded boring to most people who heard him on the piano or the harpsichord because he didn't know how to get it from the harpsichord and he did not have a proper instrument. The first performers were not successful because the audience was not prepared for that type of music in the first place. They just didn't like it. Wanda once had quite an experience when she first came to Paris because she used to buy her music in a store, and one day the [proprietor] told her that he just acquired a very special instrument from an exhibition in Paris in 1900, so she went to see it. It was a harpsichord with three keyboards, which was tremendous and there was a painting on the lid that represented a copy of the harpsichord and a man standing in front of it seeming to offer it to a woman sitting on a throne, and the story was that the man was Poniatowski offering the harpsichord to Catherine the Great of Russia. It was quite a story. So she started to play on this instrument and she was absolutely in love with it, although the instrument was not in very good shape. It was a Hasse, a German builder, with a lower 16 foot register, an 8 foot, 4 foot and even a 2 foot register. She was absolutely stunned by it but it was at a time when she had to leave Paris for a few months for a concert tour."

Landowska acquired many old instruments and soon began touring with the Pleyels made for her own use, incorporating the best features of what had been examined amongst the museum instruments, capable of adapting to serve the entire literature, as well as new works written for her by Poulenc, Falla, Rieti and others. The Poulenc on this disc is the sole example of Landowska's performance of contemporary music. Poulenc had attended the premiere of Falla's Retablo de Maese Pedro , which has a harpsichord part. Poulenc recalled:

"It was there that I met Wanda Landowska, who was playing the harpsichord in Falla's Retablo . It was the first time that the harpsichord had entered a modern orchestra. I was fascinated by the work and by Wanda. 'Write a concerto for me' she said. I promised her to try. My encounter with Landowska was a capital event in my career. I have for her as much artistic respect as human tenderness. I am proud of her friendship, and I shall never be able to say how much I owe her.

"I wrote the Concerto Champetre from October 1927 to September 1928, or rather I wrote it a first time. You know that Wanda Landowska is an interpreter of genius. The way in which she has resuscitated and recreated the harpsichord is a sort of miracle. I worked with her on the first version of my concerto. we went over it note by note, measure by measure."

When Poulenc received a copy of this performance with Stokowski, he wrote to Landowska: "How can I tell you my emotion at hearing my goddess play the Champetre ? What joy you gave me! I suddenly felt rejuvenated, happy. The cherries from your garden at Saint-Leu were in my mouth. I confess to stealing some in those days, long ago, when I was but a student musician. Now that i wonder every day if my music will live, you have given me the illusion that it will. For this, thank you from the bottom of my heart."

Landowska's home in Saint-Leu became a center for the study and performance of old music, a rare experiment in a Paris dominated by an inflexible Conservatoire which primarily concerned with virtuosity. It all began on a Sunday, July 3, 1927, with the inauguration of a concert hall. More than 250 invited guests came. One journalist reported on the event:

"At a quarter past three appeared Wanda Landowska and Alfred Cortot on the platform. A great ovation greeted the celebrated artists. Before the beginning of the musical part, Mme. Landowska addressed a short speech to the audience. She expressed her happiness in having realized the dream of her life and her thanks to her friends who helped her in this task. She said that this day was the happiest in her life.

"The concert began with J. S. Bach's Concerto a due Cembali certati, performed on two pianos by Wanda Landowska and Alfred Cortot. Mme. Landowska afterward played two preludes and fugues from the 'Wohltemperirtes Clavier' on the harpsichord. Together with Cortot she performed an Allemande by Couperin and a sonata by Pasquini, and afterwards played several pieces for harpsichord by Couperin, Dandrieu, Rameau and ChambonniËres. Mozart's Sonata for two pianos, performed by Mme. Landowska and Alfred Cortot, closed the unusual program."

Restout describes the activities at what many had considered a "Temple of Music":

"The house itself was in a suburb of Paris. It had three floors and a lovely garden. Wanda decided in the back of the garden to build a small concert hall. It contained about 300 people and she gave 12 concerts every summer followed by 12 public master classes. Students came from all over the world and there were not only harpsichordists but singers, flutists, every [kind of] musician came to study there. In the audience there were many writers, who came because the way Landowska spoke French was so beautiful that, although they did not know much about music, they loved the way she spoke French, to hear her French. She had a Polish accent but it was very refined. She had many friends who were great writers and had lived in that atmosphere for a number of years: she had known Rene Lalou, Andre Rousseau, Colette. I still have a letter from Colette. Here she knew Virgil Thomson very well. When I first met Landowska in 1933 I was a student at the Paris Conservatoire, studying piano and not liking it very much. I was studying with Lazare Levy [pupil of Diemer] but I did not like the atmosphere of practicing eight hours a day. It was not music, it was slavery. I decided to change instruments, perhaps to organ. We happened to live in the same town as Landowska and my mother insisted that I meet her for advice." Restout spoke with her after a concert: as she had her wait, sitting by her side, Restout was amazed to see "all the great musicians of our time coming to greet her." Poulenc was a frequent guest, as was Alfred Cortot, who sent his pupils to Landowska to study Bach with her. Restout continues: "Before she had St.-Leu, she was teaching in Cortot's school in Paris." Landowska asked her to play, and Restout auditioned with a Bach Prelude and Fugue and a work by Debussy. Landowska began making suggestions as to ornamentation and pedaling, "not criticizing, but saying what was good and just telling me what to do. It was so wonderful. Afterwards she said 'I think I will give you an introduction to Joseph Bonnet, he will be a good teacher for you.' I was a little anxious and she asked 'Do you like the harpsichord?' and I answered that I did and she asked 'Then why don't you study organ and harpsichord too because they are not far apart?' So I started with Bonnet and her and it was like going into paradise because her way of teaching was so totally different from what I had seen before. It was music in the first place. Only music must be the important thing. Of course we had to go through a very rigorous training. She had devised herself many exercises for the fingers, for relaxation and of course the harpsichord has a special technique very different from the piano. But this was only the means, so that with a good preparation of the fingers we could play properly the music of Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, Couperin. The next thing which was important to me was the way she explained the style of the composers, because all the teachers I had studied with, whether you worked on Bach, Chopin or Rachmaninoff, it was all the same, there was no explanation. There was no sense of historical perspective. With Wanda it was different- everything became alive with her. Then the atmosphere was wonderful because there were students from many different countries. It was so marvelous that after three years I stopped playing the organ and concentrated on the harpsichord. Bonnet was an interesting musician to work with because he was interested in French organ music of the 17th and 18th centuries. I found myself in a strange position once because he admired Landowska very much and knew that her knowledge of the ornaments was tremendous. When he had questions, he would ask me 'Would you ask Landowska. . .?' And she was interested in the organ so she would ask me 'Would you ask Bonnet about. . .?'

"It's a completely different approach. This was at the end of the romantic era of pianism. Landowska was brought up first in that way."

The idyllic St.-Leu came to an end with the arrival of the Nazis in France. Landowska and Restout escaped to Portugal and sailed to the United States. A new existence in America unfolded inside an old Victorian house in a small Connecticut village where Georges Simenon lived. A yellow porch with a green-stained roof leads one inside the Victorian house. Restout guides one through the rooms past two Pleyel harpsichords, a Steinway grand piano, and photos of the young musician with Tolstoy. In Landowska's workroom the dining table became her desk. A painting of a Madonna and child hangs nearby: "She had found it on a concert tour in Spain and brought it back to France wrapped in the harpsichord box. It was in St.-Leu and was one of the few things the Nazis didn't take." The walls have portraits of Landowska. Above the bookshelf a portrait of FranÁois Couperin. Restout described their flight:

"We came from France because of the Nazi's advance and we had to leave, sailing from Lisbon. We arrived in New York the day of Pearl Harbor and had no idea what had happened. 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. The second day we were in this enormous hall trying to find a place to sit. Wanda was inching around the wall and found a piano, which was a small upright, dirty as could be. She said, 'We don't know why we're here or how long we'll be here, so I can work.' And she did. Finally she was called and it was like a judgment. Fortunately a friend in New York who saw that we did not come out of the ship went to all the great musicians asking for letters of recommendation, saying who she was and why she was coming to this country and so forth. After lots of deliberation they finally let us out and we had to deposit bonds, 500 dollars for each of us and we had arrived with 1,300 dollars! We had already been refugees in the south of France for a year and a half. We left St.-Leu, where her home and school had been, in 1940. The beginning of the war was rather strange- you didn't know what was going to happen. All the French warned her not to stay, as she was a naturalized French subject but born Polish, and one thing they didn't like very much- that she was of Jewish origin. Her parents and grandparents had been converted but still that was not enough for the Nazis. And besides that they knew who she was and exactly what she had in her wonderful collection of old instruments and a library of about 10,000 volumes and manuscripts. They were very interested in that. Wanda herself never realized the imminent danger and wanted to stay in St.- Leu. Finally when we began to hear the fighting fifteen miles from St.-Leu we decided it was time to go. We piled into a few suitcases some clothes, a few books and music. When we had two boxes together a friend drove us south to a town along the Loire river. We spent the night in a hotel and the next day a student of hers who lived there came in white as a sheet saying 'You cannot stay here, the Germans are coming! They are already in Paris.' We didn't know what to do so I went to the station hoping to find trains going south. There were hundreds of people and no train. I tried to rent a car and went to all the garages and there was not a car to be had. I was desperate. I had a crazy idea: I can go on bicycle and put Wanda on my back. At least we can go better than on foot. It led to something interesting. I saw a bicycle shop and went in and in the courtyard there was a beautiful car so I asked 'Is this your car?' The driver was going to carry people to Paris, so I offered more to take us south. 'You have to leave early, at 4 in the morning, there is a lot of traffic on the roads south.' I went back to the hotel and told Wanda we had a car and had to leave early and she said 'Four in the morning?!' She didn't like it but for once I was disrespectful and said 'like it or not, we are going at four'. She was a night person, she liked to work at night. We went further south to Mountaubon and knew some people there and managed to find a room but the news was getting worse all the time. We then went to the Pyrenees to Banyuls-sur-Mer where her friend the sculptor Aristide Maillol had his studio. It never got better. In early 1941 we began to realize that something was really wrong. Through the underground I got news from my parents that something terrible had happened to Landowska's house in St.- Leu. Her home had been completely looted of everything- the old instrument museum, the manuscripts, only some furniture remained."

Upon arriving in America, Landowska played a recital of Bach's Goldberg Variations and soon afterwards appeared as pianist in performances of Mozart. While her harpsichord playing has been well documented on recordings, Landowska's activity as a pianist would have remained a greater mystery had not these two Mozart concertos survived. Landowska approached the harpsichord and its literature by taking risks and playing with an astonishing expressivity in a highly florid manner. In her time, such an approach was given to the piano, making it all the more fascinating to hear her on this instrument as she performs on it in a manner completely opposed to the virtuosic style of the period, using the pedal sparingly and giving more focus to the fingers' articulation and implementation of improvised flourishes, the eingange which are referred to in her writings on the composer. One keen observer and admirer was the critic and composer Virgil Thomson, who knew her in France before the Second World War. The following review, of an evening given in New York's Town Hall on which she performed on both harpsichord and piano, featured Mozart's Sonata in D, K.311. His comments equally apply to the concertos present on this disc, offering the reflections of a highly sensitive listener focusing in on a pianism as unique as her harpsichord playing:

"Wanda Landowska's playing of the harpsichord at Town Hall last night reminded one all over again that there is nothing in the world like it. There does not exist in the world today, nor has there existed in my lifetime, another soloist of this or of any instrument whose work is so dependable, so authoritative and so thoroughly satisfactory. From all the points of view- historical knowledge, style, taste, understanding and spontaneous musicality- her renderings of harpsichord repertoire are, for our epoch, definitive. Criticism is unavailing against them, has been so, indeed, for thirty years.

"Her piano playing is another story. She likes to play Mozart in evocation of the way Mozart himself must have, or might have, played on the early fortepiano. To this end she employs, as Mozart certainly employed, a high- fingered technique similar to that which gives the best result in harpsichord playing. 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. Pianistically, all the same, her execution is a little unsatisfactory.

"It is not unsatisfactory because of any technical inefficiency. It is unsatisfactory because the modern pianoforte, a less brilliant instrument than Mozart's, does not yield what brilliance it has save by the exploitation of its full dynamic range. And Mozart's piano music, as we know, was of brilliance and virtuosity all compact. It need not glitter, but it has to shine. Landowska gives us a photograph of it on the modern piano, very much as other pianists give us a photograph of Bach's harpsichord music.

"Our instrument is closer to Mozart's than it is to the plucked instruments. But it is not the same instrument. That is why Mozart's symphonies and operas and chamber music always sound more vivid to us in execution than his piano music does. Fiddles, wind instruments and voices do not have to walk through Mozart on tiptoes. The pianoforte, no matter how elegant its phrasing, inevitably sounds clumsy and a little meticulous.

"I recommend Landowska's pianoforte Mozart, because I recommend any music she touches. It is the best piano Mozart I know. It is a model of understanding musically, as it is a tour de force technically. Nevertheless, by the very fact of being a translation- which her harpsichord playing of course, is not- it is a slightly less authentic, less vigorous reconstitution."

Landowska writes of the C major Concerto, K.415:

"The first movement . . . is a type of alla marcia which advances in canonic imitations. Tranquil at first, it augments little by little and develops into the same kind of triplet motive which marks the opening of the Jupiter Symphony. Thus this concerto, which has been neglected and ignored for so long, contains from its first notes elements of grandeur and dramatic power.

"The Andante is a tender and lyrical dialogue between the soloist and the strings, the latter supported from time to time by oboes, bassoons, and horns. But above all it is the Finale, a frolicsome dance in 6/8, which deserves our fullest attention. [A] letter of Mozart to his father from Vienna, January 22, 1783, throws much more penetrating and informative light on the subject: 'I shall send the cadenzas and Eingange (short introductory passages announcing the approach of new moods; they had to be extemporized like the cadenzas, although they represented a very different aspect of improvisation), to my dear sister at the first opportunity. I have not yet altered the Eingange in the rondo, for whenever I play this concerto, I always play whatever occurs to me at the moment.'

"The use of cadenzas at the end of each movement is still common today, while the small fermatas, upon which we come unexpectedly here and there, and most significantly at the Eingange , which twice announce the approach of the sublime adagio in C minor, have been virtually ignored since the performances by Mozart himself or by the musicians of his time. At the end of the rondo, Mozart introduces a popular folksong, ingratiating and fresh in mood, against the murmurings of the strings."

Concerto in E-flat, K.482:

"The Concerto. . . belongs to the period of Mozart's great virtuosity, which extended from August 1784 to January 1786. Mozart had become the fashionable musician of the day in Vienna; he was feted by the Emperor, the aristocracy, and even by his own colleagues. During this period he composed a great number of works which were performed in public and at private academies. Mozart played the E Flat Major Concerto in Vienna on December 16, 1785.

"The Allegro, with its symphonic features, is powerful, joyous, and solidly built, with broad themes against which garlands and light arabesques tenderly nestle. Between this movement and the happy spirited Finale, the admirable Andante- a sorrowful and touching lament- gravely stands out. Ornamented throughout with infinite care by the master himself, this Andante is perhaps one of the most beautiful in all of Mozart's works. The sweet serenity of a little interlude by woodwind instruments interrupts this pathetic and poignant lament so divinely simple. Mozart had to repeat this movement after the first performance of the concerto.

"In the Finale, a marvel of grace and sprightliness, Mozart seems to have forgotten his despair and his tears. From the very first note it bounces with that waggish gaiety that is Mozart's alone. The effervescence of a Neapolitan dance mingles with the sentimental tenderness of a Viennese landler . The strings set upon a mischievous chase; the whole piece rings out in exuberant joy. The bassoon suddenly takes on an unsuspected agility; it whirls about, curtsies, and touches us by its efforts at being light-footed. Over a pedal-point the flute sings away madly with the tender abandonment of a prima donna, with trills, mordents, and appoggiaturas in the purest Italian tradition.

"In this Finale, all is gay, light, carefree, and diaphanous, although it is solidly built and inexorably strong. It is filled with radiance, sonorous cascades, and arabesques. Everything in it sings, laughs, and dances; it is like a small opera buffa with its outbursts of tender feelings and happiness. But toward the end a surprise awaits us- a strange and delicious intermezzo. There is a sudden modulation and a fermata that invites the soloist to improvise. Then a minuet, andantino cantabile, appears, stately, delicate, ad somewhat precious, as if amazed at finding itself in the midst of those exuberant and tumultuous voices. Its structure is so clear that we become immediately aware of Mozart's intention. It is a dialogue; the orchestra proposes a theme of simple outlines h the soloist takes up and must embellish with ornaments according to the laws of the time."


Sources: Arbiter Records. Copyright Allan Evens, 1996.

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