Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Women in my Life. Part One - Wanda Landowska

I'm going to begin a new little series of posts titled "The Women in my Life" and feature several female historical figures that have had a great deal of influence and inspiration in my life. Some you may have heard of, others probably not.

Of course, my mom and grandmother have had more influence than any other women, that goes without saying. They were strong, funny, indomitable women who raised me since the age of ten and to whom I owe a lot of my character development. Or the need for medication, take your pick.

But I'm going to feature historical women who I've studied and who continue to amaze me with their insight with regard to music, politics, spirituality and philosophy. These are in no particular order of favorites, so here we go.

Wanda Landowska (1880-1959) Born in Poland, Landowska was responsible for singlehandedly reviving the harpsichord as an instrument of performance. She was first and foremost a musicologist of the highest order, primarily studying the keyboard works of Bach and other composers of that era. She also was an incredible performer and, thankfully, an avid enthusiast when in came to recording her interpretations of Bach's keyboard works on her custom built harpsichord.

Landowska married early but was widowed early as well. She and her lifelong companion, Denise Restout, escaped France during the German occupation and settled in the U.S. where Landowska continued to teach, lecture, perform and record until her death in 1959.

Landowska is known for taking liberties with Bach and her interpretations can certainly be unique. However, since she was such a thorough musicologist, she could always substantiate the liberties she took while playing the works of the great master.

Following one of her performances, she and a colleague were having a spirited discussion regarding interpretation of a Bach piece she had just played. At one point, Landowska was overheard saying, "Very well, dear. You continue to play Bach the way you want. I, on the other hand, shall continue to play Bach the way he wants!"

I love that.

Landowska was so incredibly precise and detailed when studying a keyboard work to be performed. I've seen a copy of one her scores of a Bach fugue and almost every note has a penciled-in mark as to how it should be played.

When you listen to a Landowska recording, it's amazing to hear how she can bring out so many melodic lines just due to subtle phrasing or registrations she uses on her harpsichord. When I hear Landowska, I know I'm hearing something almost, well, supernatural.

I love that.

So, I've a little treat for you. Just so you can hear how incredible she plays, I'm including two different recordings of the same piece. First is a recording of moi playing Bach's Fugue in G-sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier on my harpsichord-like digital keyboard and then I'm following it with a recording of Landowska's, circa 1949. This is a pretty difficult piece due to the fact that it's got four melodic lines going on. But, hopefully, after you hear the comparison you can truly appreciate what the great woman can do at the keyboard. Click on the links below:

1. Me playing Bach the way Landowska wants

2. Landowska playing Bach the way he wants

Isn't she incredible? Let us bow in reverence to the great woman.



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