I first learned of Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) when I was in high school, and read Harold Schonberg’s landmark book, “The Great Pianists”, which I recommend heartily to all students of music, especially those who love the piano, for whom it should be required reading. I first heard her play on the Angel “Great Recordings of the Century” LP devoted to her interpretations of Bach. I was totally unfamiliar with the harpsichord at the time, but to put it simply, I fell in love with her playing. I never imagined that the harpsichord could express the power, majesty, and passion that, under her fingers, it never fails to convey.
In The Great Pianists, Harold Schonberg writes of Landowska,
…Her playing was on an equally romantic level, and who is to say that it was not closer to Bach than the dry munchings of some later harpsichordists? As an executant she had a miraculous equality of touch, with a left hand that seemed to have a brain of its own. Her registrations were, to say the least, colorful. But no artist in this generation (and, one is confident, in any generation) could with equal deftness clarify the polyphonic writing of the baroque masters. And none could make the music so spring to life…
Her secret was a lifetime of scholarship, plus perfect technical equipment and resilient rhythm, all combined with a knowledge of just when not to hold the printed note sacrosanct.
Concerning the first piece of music presented below, the Toccata in D Major, Landowska herself writes as follows:
There are seven different manuscripts of this composition in existence, all of which bear the title “Toccata”; only one – a more recent copy – is entitled “Fantasia con Fuga”. The Toccata in D Major contains within itself all the elements of Bach’s genius: the spontaneity and force of his improvisation, the logic of his contrapuntal elaboration, his unique sense of architecture. Bach’s masterly hand unites these varied elements into a magnificent triptych; flanked on each side by a brilliant D Major, a tragic but tranquil F-sharp minor forms its centerpiece, which is a fugue of supreme beauty.
This performance was recorded in September 1936. I would like to call your attention particularly to the fugue that begins at 9:42. The “resilient rhythm” in Landowska’s playing was never more strikingly evident. I know of no other music, composed by anyone, that is more compelling and powerful – or that conveys a greater sense of joy – than this fugue.
The next piece was recorded by Landowska in July 1935. Concerning it, she writes:
The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BVW 903) belongs to the Cöthen period. 1720 is a reasonable date for a first draft, but the definitive version, elaborated in Leipzig, has come down to us in a number of copies, although the original manuscript is missing. The oldest of these copies is dated 6th December 1730. This work seems to be unique among Bach’s compositions, not only because it was widely distributed during his lifetime (the number of copies bears witness to this), but in particular by its exceptional intensity. An improviser of inexhaustible imagination, an incomparable virtuoso – such is the impression of Bach which this “fantasia” gives, a work related to the composer’s most brilliant toccatas. A youthful work, it shows traces of his first heroes: Kuhnau, Froberger, Pachelbel, Buxtehude…
After the Fantasia the Fugue, despite its chromatic theme, expresses a contrasting ardour which ends in serene joy… It is perhaps pure accident that the first notes of the subject reproduce in German musical notation an anagram on the name Bach… It forms one of the most striking examples of the mastery of composition, architectural balance and creative power in Bach’s works.
A well-known story about Landowska concerns a tête-à-tête she had with the eminent cellist and Bach authority, Pablo Casals. After the two of them had defended different points of view concerning certain aspects of interpretation, Landowska got in the undisputed last word when she said, “My dear Pau, (as she called him), let us not fight anymore. Continue to play Bach your way, and I, his way.”