Wanda Landowska, the pioneering keyboard player who helped return the harpsichord to the Western concert stage, died in 1959; this year marks no particular anniversary of her birth or passing. But the Library of Congress has a special relationship to Landowska — a collection of her papers and several of her instruments reside there — and to the harpsichord: Since 1980, the Jurow Fund has provided for an annual concert involving the instrument. Reason enough for Trevor Pinnock, the English harpsichordist and early-music conductor, to give a recital in Landowska’s honor Tuesday night.
Musically, the two are worlds apart. Landowska’s recordings document an aggressive, no-holds-barred approach, the assertiveness needed to reestablish a repertory that had long been neglected. Pinnock has more tact and delicacy; there’s a courtliness to his approach. But the point is that, without Landowska’s pioneering work, Pinnock, and the whole school of historically informed performances of early music, in which he is such a pivotal figure, might not exist as they do today.
By today’s standards, though, the instruments she used are veritable dinosaurs, with big keyboards, four sets of strings instead of three, and a battery of foot pedals. The latter feature gave Pinnock particular trouble when he attempted to play one of her Pleyels, which had sat demurely at the side of the stage, at the end of the first half of his recital. Some of the pedals had to be lifted, while others had to be depressed: “For anyone as directionally challenged as I am, it’s a total nightmare,” Pinnock said. It took him several tries to bring off a performance of a short piece that Landowska knew as a ground by Purcell, but that is now known to have been written by William Croft. (He had better success on the instrument at the recital’s end, with “My Lady Wynkfylds Rownde,” a simple piece possibly played by Queen Elizabeth I.)
Even Landowska’s big instruments didn’t make all that huge a sound. “When recorded,” Pinnock pointed out, “they gave the impression of being much louder than they are.” The instrument Pinnock used for the bulk of his recital, built on the model of an 18th-century original by Blanchet — with hand stops in lieu of pedals — offered the precision and detail of a pen-and-ink drawing, and, like a pen-and-ink drawing, revealed every hesitation, every slightly shaky line.
From the outset, when he made an eloquent case for Handel’s skill as a composer for harpsichord with a chaconne in G and variations, his fingers needling the keys like a sewing machine, Pinnock made beautiful pictures with the means at hand. He showed the harpsichord’s expressive range, contrasting the rather sepulchral tread of Couperin’s “Passacaille” (a Landowska favorite) and the light, tripping tiptoeing of the composer’s “La Morinete.” And he explored its onomatopoeic abilities in Byrd’s “The Bells,” with its opening two-tone carillon (and guitarlike final flourish), and the robust faux-rusticity (and bravura intricacy) of John Bull’s “The King’s Hunt.”
Not that Pinnock was a paragon of technical perfection: He was reaching through the music to something more than mere accuracy. There were brief stumbles, like small blots on the page, and one moment when his exuberance led him to start over in the second movement of Bach’s “French” Suite No. 5. That suite, though, was one of the highlights of a program that had a lot of highlights (Rameau’s “Gavotte Avec ses Doubles,” with its terraces of variations, and three concluding Scarlatti sonatas among them). Bach was a Landowska touchstone, and Pinnock placed it after a “Lamento” from a Froberger suite that ended with what he described as the soul ascending upward on a C Major scale, a balance of poignancy and perfect order.