This is an exemplary historical reissue. It does not revel in the poor sound quality of the original 1930s recordings; rather, the engineers have tried to deliver a product faithful to Wanda Landowska's original intentions -- which, as we learn from the detailed and informative notes by Landowska's disciple and companion Denise Restout, were quite ambitious when it came to sound quality. She worked closely with engineers to determine optimum microphone placement for the different registers of her complex Pleyel harpsichord. It does not select old performances at random; rather, these were recordings that followed closely on famous Landowska concerts, most importantly her 1933 performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations -- the first performance of the entire work on the harpsichord in the twentieth century. It does not overwhelm the listener with dull historical detail in the notes; Restout was present when these recordings were made, and her recollections are relevant and to the point. And best of all, it revives music-making that will be fascinating for anybody, not just Landowska fans, harpsichord buffs, or historical-recordings specialists. This disc gives one an idea of why a generation of French musicians, Poulenc inlcuded, spoke reverentially of Wanda Landowska. From a modern point of view, these are hardly authentic performances -- Landowska's Pleyel harpsichord was a giant beast that bore little resemblance to any instrument of Bach's time, and her playing has a free-spirited quality that Glenn Gould must have enjoyed. Of course they opened the door for everyone else who has subsequently tried to realize something of Bach's sound world; it was Landowska who first insisted, in the face of considerable skepticism, that Bach's keyboard works ought to be played on a harpsichord. The Pleyel harpsichord was built to her specifications, as part of her campaign to prove that the harpsichord was not a dessicated old thing but an expressive wonder. It has multiple registers and sounds, reminding one of nothing so much as the muscular E. Power Biggs pedal harpsichord of the 1960s. Some of the sounds that come out of it are a little strange (check out what happens at the end of the seventh Goldberg variation, for example), but Landowska generally uses the capabilities of her instrument in ways that make musical sense. Its freakish range of sound is used to clarify Bach's polyphonic structures. Inner voices emerge with a sharpness that young harpsichordists today are still struggling to match, and it's easy to hear why Albert Schweitzer, when he heard Landowska play the Italian Concerto on the harpsichord in 1903, declared that it would never again make sense on a piano. There are plenty of recordings that do not put across why Wanda Landowska was so important in her time; this one does so, and it is essential listening for anyone who loves Bach's music.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Partita for keyboard No. 1 in B flat major, BWV 825 (BC L1)|
|Italian Concerto, for solo keyboard in F major (Clavier-Übung II/1), BWV 971 (BC L7)|
|Goldberg Variations, for keyboard (Clavier-Übung IV), BWV 988 (BC L9)|