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Wanda Landowska, Pioneer of Pioneers

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Landowska: Uncommon Visionary

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Handel / Purcell, Suites, T. Pinnock
(live at Wigmore Hall)

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Scarlatti, Sonatas, T. Pinnock
Was Wanda Landowska "the greatest harpsichordist who ever lived," as English harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock put it? Certainly, she was a "pioneer of pioneers" in the movement to revive the harpsichord, the first performer to record Bach's Goldberg Variations on the instrument, for example. Composers in the early 20th century certainly took notice, creating pieces for her and incorporating the harpsichord into a modern context, and all of the harpsichord virtuosos who followed were indebted to what she accomplished. At the Library of Congress on Tuesday night, Pinnock offered a tribute to Landowska, which required equal parts of his skills as soloist and raconteur.

Pinnock played music by composers whom Landowska championed, beginning with Handel's Chaconne and Variations in G major (HWV 435). Now in his 60s, Pinnock has lost some of his finger dexterity, which caused a few technical slips, most notably in the courante of Bach's G major French suite (BWV 816), which he had to restart after coming to a complete stop. On the other hand, when a page stubbornly refused to turn during the Handel, Pinnock proceeded to play to the end from memory, without missing a beat. The fast movements of the Bach suite were not flawless but had undaunted spirit, especially the jaunty gavotte, and the louré made a lot of musical sense played entirely on the lute stop of the William Dowd harpsichord, based on a French instrument by Blanchet and loaned by Kenneth Slowik.

Pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book were particularly evocative: Byrd's The Bells, animated by the oscillating semitone at its core, and John Bull's The King's Hunt, enlivened by differences in articulation that heightened the imitations of shouts, cries, horn calls, and so on. Pinnock offered Johann Jacob Froberger's Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della Real Mstà di Ferdinando IV as a memorial to Landowska, its closing C major scale rising up to the harpsichord's highest note, like the soul rising to heaven, as Pinnock put it. There in heaven, waiting for her, was Bach, whom Pinnock described as Landowska's musical god, represented by the aforementioned French suite.

Music by François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau, also Landowska favorites, opened the second half, beginning with two selections from Couperin's eighth ordre. Pinnock seemed to run out of ideas to give individual nuances to all the repetitions of the leading idea in the passacaille, but the use of a tinkly 4' registration for the La Morinète movement was intriguing. Pieces by Rameau struck similar resonances, like the charming country lilt of the Musette en rondeau and the sharp, militaristic precision of the Tambourin. Landowska also gave marvelously colored performances of many of the sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, three of which were selected by Pinnock. He gave K. 490 the feel of a solemn procession, including pleasing echo effects, with the little solo flourishes like trumpet calls in dialogue (Landowska recorded the piece in Paris in 1940, and bombing noises are heard in the background), and K. 491 was even more heraldic and brassy. Pinnock may not have gotten all of the many notes in K. 492, but he gave an odd, almost unmetered interpretation to the strange, little solo turn first heard at m. 26.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Trevor Pinnock plays harpsichord concert (Washington Post, March 31)

Alex Baker, Pinnock Plays Landowska Tribute Show at LOC (Wellsung, March 30)
Landowska is remembered not so much for playing on historical harpsichords, although she did study them and play them. She made most of her recordings on a special type of instrument made to her specifications by the Pleyel company, with a piano mindset -- piano-sized keys, a rather cheesy set of low strings adding a piano-like bass, and a convoluted set of pedals to switch among the various settings, not to mention a rather unwieldy tuning mechanism. (Here are some further thoughts on the instrument by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, who played it last year.) Thankfully, Pinnock opted to play only two short works on the Pleyel, more than enough to make clear what a strange sort of Frankenstein monster it is. At the end of the first half, Pinnock had a devil of a time sorting out the pedal system, to give a rendition of a Ground formerly attributed to Purcell, recreating the shift between lute and regular stops used by Landowska. Similar effects were displayed in the final encore, a little dance called My Lady Carey's Dompe, which Pinnock said was brought to his attention by Landowska's student Rafael Puyana, who was probably the last person to specialize on one of the Pleyel instruments.

The next concert at the Library of Congress will feature the London Conchord Ensemble (April 8, 8 pm), playing music for various combination of woodwinds and piano by Mozart, Poulenc, Frank Bridge, and Beethoven.

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