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Television Review

Eventful Life of a Master Harpsichordist

July 08, 1999|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Landowska: Uncommon Visionary" takes an affectionate and fascinating look at the woman who changed music history, almost single-handedly, by bringing the harpsichord out of the museum and onto the concert stage.

It wasn't easy. Even a seminal early-music specialist in the first decade of the century called the instrument a "cage for flies" and urged her to abandon her efforts.

But she persevered and slowly triumphed in her battle for the instrument and much neglected music of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Landowska was born in Poland in 1879, studied in Berlin and moved to Paris, where she met her husband, Henry Lew. Teaching in Germany at the outbreak of World War I, she and Lew were interned there until the Armistice. He was killed in a car crash only days before they were to return to Paris.

She rebuilt her life in Paris only to have to flee the Nazi advance on the city two decades later, abandoning an enormous library of books and scores and all her instruments. Eventually, her Pleyel harpsichord, built to her specifications, was recovered from a mess hall in Bavaria. Again starting from scratch, she moved to New York in 1941. She died at her home in Lakeville, Conn., in 1959.

Wonderful filmed sequences from the archives include Landowska in 1909 going by sled through a blizzard to play for Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, his family's estate.

There are also excerpts from her only filmed appearance, a 1953 television interview, as well as lots of musical snippets.

Among the commentators are musicians, of course, and her long-time companion and former student, Denise Restout, but also political commentator William F. Buckley Jr., who provides his own star-struck remarks. The program verges on hagiography. Personality issues raised in a quoted remark by famed American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, once her student, are raised, then passed over. "She wants to make me simply part of her own ego and have complete control over me," Kirkpatrick said.

But it is hard to resist her in that television interview or in her masterly playing, and even Kirkpatrick is said to have come around.

* "Landowska: Uncommon Visionary" airs at 10 tonight on KCET-TV.

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