Wanda Landowska was the harpsichord connoisseur’s harpsichord connoisseur. Born in Poland in 1879, she was a trailblazer of the instrument. She was the first to record the Goldberg Variations, and the first to perform it live in front of an audience. Manuel De Falla and Francis Poulenc were so enthralled that they both composed works for the harpsichord expressly for Landowska.
Her Scarlatti is absolutely peerless. Lightness and incomparable technique inform every sonata. Landowska’s playing is always studious and witty. And these recordings, done in a Paris studio in 1939-40 also contain one of the most indelible moments in classical music recordings. Midway through the airy D major Sonata, K. 490, at 2:01, you can hear the German bombs falling on the city that began the occupation.
It’s an instance of stark brutality and dread heard in between the airy notes of an Italian baroque sonata. And without a pause, Landowska continues to play.