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Review- Bach

Bach, Das wohltemperiete Klavier, Book I, Wanda Landowska, harpsichord; Naxos “Great Harpsichordists” 8.110314-15

Bach, Clavierübung I-II, Chromatic fantasy and fugue, Elizabeth de la Porte, harpsichord ; (London Independent LIR012).

Freddy Kempf Plays Bach (D Major and E Minor Partitas); Freddy Kempf, piano; BIS-CD-1330

Bach, Die Kunst der Fuge; Sébastian Guillot, harpsichord; Naxos 8.557796

Reviewed by John Weretka

Wanda Landowska, an artist the memory of whom has so dominated discussions of the reinvention of early music in the twentieth century, is the subject of a double CD in Naxos’ ‘Great Harpsichordists’ series. These are recordings made painstakingly over three years from 1949 to 1951 in New York and at Landowska’s home in Connecticut, the last of them made when she was 79.  The original recordings, on lacquer masters and magnetic tape, have been sensitively remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn.

Landowska remains an icon of the early music revival, but perhaps revered rather more at a distance than from personal acquaintance.  On an extended listening, it is clear that the Landowska legacy is difficult to appraise.  On the one hand, her recordings make clear that this was a supremely literate artist who cared deeply for the texts that formed the basis of her art.  Her performance of the first fugue (BWV 846), for example, is famously characterised by her avoidance of the demisemiquavers of the subject, which she defended through her interpretation of the visual evidence of the Volkmann Autograph.  There is no doubt that every note has received its full measure of intellect, and recordings like these are testament to a lifelong engagement with the notes and the milieu in which they were created.

One can’t help thinking, though, that regardless of the amount of engagement that is evident in these recordings, the answers reached to the questions posed by the music are somehow deeply flawed.  In offering a defence for “her idiosyncrasies of tempo, rhythm, added notes and rubato”, the programme note writer for this release quotes a “contemporary reviewer” who wrote, “Those who know the score best should forget their theories and listen to what she has to say.”  This is a fine quote, but doesn’t withstand much critical scrutiny.


For better or worse, Landowska’s vision of these works is intimately tied to the various choices she makes.  These range from the gigantic Pleyel harpsichord she plays to those very details of tempo, rhythm, added notes and rubato that characterise her interpretations.  One simply cannot pretend that these parameters are separate from the music; they are integral to the way Landowska intends the music to be heard.  To this reviewer’s ears at least, one has to try to listen for the music by ignoring all of these.  Her performance of the G Major prelude (BWV 860) for example, rather than the quicksilver, light movement we are now generally accustomed to, sounds here like a bombastic battery, overloaded as it is with heavy registration.  The same is true of the fugue in A Major (BWV 864) in which leaves are taken from the organist’s book; this is an enormous interpretation in which the music is largely submerged under a welter of noise.

There are also those performance mannerisms that undermine the narrative flow of movements, including the constant arresting of forward momentum that occurs at significant cadence points.  Her tempi, most of all in the fugues, tend to be laboured.  The fugue in G Minor (BWV 861) takes 4’11’’ for Landowska to perform but only 2’02’’ – less than half – for Ton Koopman to perform.  The issue here is not a tedious one of enumerating the differences in tempi between one recording and another.  Rather, the choice of the tempo specifically determines how the listener will understand the music.  This fugue subject is typical of Bach in Das wohltemperiete Klavier – a two bar theme, separated into two phrases by strategically placed rests.  The model is clearly a vocal one (the rests are obviously breaths) and the music simply must go at a speed in which these two units can be heard as a single phrase and their transformations followed through the texture.  One hears this in Koopman, but not in Landowska.

The issue of phrasing haunts Landowska through these recordings.  In the C Minor fugue (BWV 847), for example, the three motivic units of the subject are clearly phrased by Koopman, while Landowska pastes over the seams, preferring instead the sonic variety provided by differing registrations.  Ultimately, all one hears are the “sharp outlines and muted whispers…fluted tones [and] shifting sonorities of…coupled keyboards” that Landowska loved in her Pleyel.  This makes excellent Landowska, but somehow Bach is lost in the translation.

At the other end of the spectrum entirely are Elizabeth de la Porte’s recordings of the first and second parts of the Clavierübung and Chromatic fantasy and fugue, made in the mid 1970s and remastered with only occasional blemishes.  The two instruments used, one after Goujon and the other after the Goermans-Taskin instrument in the Raymond Russell collection, are used sensitively and always with an eye to allowing the music to speak for itself.  These are no-nonsense recordings in which the galant element of Bach’s keyboard suites comes to the fore in the decoration of movements that appears to be a hallmark of de la Porte’s style.  The weightier Partitas in B Minor (BWV 831) and D Major (BWV 828) are the central achievements of these performances and the contrast of the gravity of the Overture and the humour of the Echo in the B Minor partita is immensely enjoyable.  The least successful work is the Partita in E Minor (BWV 830); somehow, the narrative of the Toccata doesn’t quite work, and the attempts to force a gigue out of the final movement meet with only intermittent success.

The D Major and E Minor partitas are the subject of Freddy Kempf’s Bis disc, recorded in 2005 on a Steinway D.  Kempf makes a persuasive case for Bach at the piano, with pedalling that contributes greatly to the success of the allemandes and sarabandes in these suites.  Full credit must go to recording engineer Jens Braun for allowing Kempf’s wonderful sound to be committed so sensitively to disc.  These are rather hands off performances compared to de la Porte’s more personalised expressions of the same repertoire; barely an ornament is added, but Kempf is careful to characterise bass lines in a way that eludes de la Porte.  The Toccata to the E Minor partita is superbly realised, the Overture to the D Major partita less so.  At 3’12’’, his gigue to the D Major partita is needlessly breathless, shaving almost two minutes off de la Porte’s more sedate but more musical version.  The result is a tour de force of instrumental virtuosity but almost incomprehensible as a piece of music.

Finally, Naxos has also released Sébastian Guillot’s account of the earlier version of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge.  Beautifully recorded and played on a beautiful instrument, this disc is an essay in the architectural considerations of Bach’s fugal technique.  The architecture is respected, but one only rarely hears intimations of contact with the emotional content of the music.  Despite the limited risk-taking, Guillot’s technique and approach to articulation are clearly wonderfully adapted to this music.#