In the slow rebuilding of my fire-consumed libraries, I recently replaced my copy of the Landowska recording of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. It's been many years since I last sat down to listen to this reading, and what a glorious reading it is, too. Landowska's approach to Bach has often (and more often than not, pejoratively) been characterized as Romantic, and it is that indeed; an arresting contrast to the uncanny purity of Glenn Gould's precise lean-and-mean approach, and a jarring departure from the school of so-called (and self-servingly-called) "authentic" period performance (or as the aficionados of this style of "old music" performance now euphemistically and self-defensively call it, Historically Informed Performance, or HIP). On this recent hearing, however, it struck me that Landowska's reading is as much gothic as it is Romantic. A sense of the darkly mysterious is everywhere present, even in the most joyful of the fugues, and no small credit for producing that effect is due the specially designed and built to Landowska specifications Pleyel harpsichord, a modern instrument that bears resemblance to the period harpsichord only in its general makeup.
Compared with a period harpsichord the Pleyel is a bit of a monster in both sound and aspect, and in these recordings its sound is not flatteringly or accurately dealt with by the technical limitations of early-'50s recording equipment and techniques, and by the circumstance that many of these preludes and fugues were recorded in Landowska's home in Connecticut rather than in the controlled acoustic of a recording studio.
All that notwithstanding, there's something to be said for hearing Bach's great summa performed and performed by a profoundly informed virtuoso such as Landowska on this strange, iron-framed, seven-pedaled instrument with its quick and easy registration shifts; shifts difficult, sometimes impossible, to make on the period instrument.
The Pleyel's sound is quite big for a harpsichord a direct result of Landowska's specifications which demanded an iron frame for the instrument so that its string tensions could be significantly increased allowing the Pleyel's sound to carry well in a modern recital hall and more metallically nasal than the period instrument. If one approaches listening to Bach performed on the Pleyel by naively comparing or attempting to reconcile its sound with that of the historical harpsichord one is fairly certain to end up defeated and not a little repelled by the sound of the former. If, however, one listens to this music performed on the Pleyel not by comparing its sound with that of a period instrument, but by hearing its sound as that of an instrument that would logically, and almost certainly, have evolved from that period instrument had not the fortepiano come along when it did, one gets a different sense of the thing altogether, and an opening-up to a remarkable new listening experience. One has only to hear Landowska's reading of the deceptively simple C-major prelude that opens Book I with her mystical and evocative registration shifts to understand immediately the enormous expressive potential of the Pleyel under the right pair of hands. And no hands are more right for this instrument, for Bach especially, than those of the great Landowska.
For those of you with a more than passing interest in Bach's keyboard works (and even for those of you without, for that matter) who do not already own this great historic recording, this luminous, majestic, gothic-Romantic reading of the Forty-eight is a reading you owe it to yourselves to give a considered hearing. For those of you who already own the recording, you owe yourselves another critical listen with new ears. In either case, I promise you your time will be revelatory and well spent.