WANDA LANDOWSKA (1879 - 1959)
Wanda Landowska came from a cultured background. Her father was an amateur musician and lawyer in Warsaw and her mother, who spoke six languages, was the first to translate the works of Mark Twain into Polish and founded the first Berlitz School in Warsaw. Landowska 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 Michałowski. At seventeen Landowska went to Berlin to complete her studies, in piano with Moritz Moszkowski and in composition with Heinrich Urban.
Having moved to Paris, Landowska married Henri Lew whom she had met in Berlin; he encouraged her to explore music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She was introduced to Vincent d’Indy, Charles Bordes and Alexandre Gilmant who founded the Schola Cantorum in order to promote ancient music, as well as to Albert Schweitzer. Between 1905 and 1909 Landowska wrote a number of scholarly articles which were published in book form as Musique Ancienne in 1909. She performed as a pianist, but from 1903 began to appear in public as a harpsichordist, and it is with this instrument that her name is usually connected. Landowska visited Russia twice at this time with her harpsichord and on the second visit played for Leo Tolstoy. She toured throughout Europe as a harpsichordist and just before the outbreak of World War I taught at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Landowska and her husband remained in Berlin, but as civil prisoners on parole since they were French citizens. After the war, Landowska taught harpsichord at the Conservatory in Basle for a short period and then returned to Paris, teaching at the Sorbonne and École Normale de Musique. Her husband was killed in a road accident in 1919.
A few years after her first visit to America, which came in 1923 at the invitation of Leopold Stokowski, Landowska founded the École de Musique Ancienne near Paris at Saint-Leu-la-Forêt where she had settled. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s she continued to tour and perform on both the harpsichord and piano, often playing works specially written for her to perform on the harpsichord such as the Concert champêtre by Poulenc and the Concerto by Manuel de Falla. At the Nazi invasion of Paris, Landowska escaped with her pupil and companion Denise Restout whom she had met in 1933. They went first to a town on the Spanish border, then to New York. In 1947 Landowska settled with Restout in Lakeville, Connecticut, and remained there for the rest of her life. She continued to perform into the 1950s and became renowned not only as the most eminent harpsichordist of the first half of the twentieth century, but also as the individual responsible for resurrecting both the instrument and a scholarly approach to the performance of music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, fashions in performance of music from this period change rapidly, and comparisons of a recording of a work of Bach by Landowska on her custom-built Pleyel harpsichord with a piano recording by Glenn Gould, or even a modern harpsichord performance, show how wide these changes can be. Landowska’s first records were made for Victor during her first visit to America in 1923. She recorded Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier between 1950 and 1954 at her home in Lakeville, completing it at the age of seventy-five. These were recordings where she played the harpsichord. However, Landowska also made recordings on the piano of works by Mozart. The first were made in London for HMV in March 1937, when she was asked to record the ‘Coronation’ Concerto K. 537 in celebration of the coronation of George VI. In this and other Mozart concerto recordings Landowska plays her own cadenzas and applies tasteful decoration. A filler for the last side of the 78rpm set of discs was the Fantasy in D minor K. 397 of which Landowska gives a pure, controlled and exquisite performance. Back in Paris in January 1938 Landowska recorded five of Mozart’s piano sonatas for French HMV. The outbreak of World War II prevented their issue, and apparently the matrices were destroyed, but the recordings of K. 332 in F major, K. 576 in D major and an incomplete K. 311 in D major have been issued on compact disc from surviving test pressings. Landowska always makes the listener aware of the structure of the works by underlining salient structural points. She combines this with a pure tone, exemplary articulation and clarity. The slow movement of the Sonata in F major is a model of taste and distinction with beautifully executed ornaments.
In 1956 Landowska recorded four of Mozart’s piano sonatas, the Rondo in A minor K. 511 and German Dances K. 606 for RCA Victor who took their recording equipment to her home in Lakeville. At the age of eighty, in the spring of 1959 shortly before her death, Landowska recorded Haydn’s Variations in F minor and his Sonatas in E minor and E flat major on the piano as well as some sonatas on the harpsichord.
A few recordings of Landowska in live performances as pianist have appeared, most notably in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat K. 482. It is a broadcast from New York in 1945 when she performed with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Artur Rodzinski. In the following year the Concerto in C major K. 415 was broadcast with the same forces.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).