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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897): Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83* [44’31"]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856): Fantasia in C major, Op. 17 [28’13"]
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
*Sächsische Staatskapelle/Karl Böhm
Recorded *in 1939 and in London in 1937 ADD
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC MASTERPIECE CD94.044 [72’44"]


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This CD presents two vintage performances by the German pianist, Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969). In the concerto he benefits from sterling support from Karl Böhm. The recordings, though over sixty years old, have come up excellently and I was particularly astonished at the amount of orchestral detail that registers. The transfers to CD have been well managed with little evidence of surface noise. As is usual with this series there are no booklet notes but notes can be downloaded from Hänssler’s website (www.haensler-classic.de), which I always feel is a poor and inconvenient alternative.

Near the start of the first movement of the concerto, in the passage between bars 146 and 174 (track 1, from 6’09") there were several wrong notes and, indeed, Backhaus is rather splashy in this passage. I feared this might be an account of the concerto spoiled by inaccuracies. However, these fears proved groundless. Don’t be put off by this fallible passage because generally Backhaus is well in command of the solo part. As I indicated earlier, Böhm is a fine accompanist. He keeps a firm yet flexible hand on the proceedings and secures good playing from the orchestra.

Backhaus plays the second movement with power where appropriate. However, what he mainly emphasizes is the lyric side of the music and this, I’m sure, is right. The opening of the slow movement is distinguished by an eloquent cello solo of mahogany tone. Böhm shapes the orchestral introduction masterfully and, when he enters, Backhaus responds sensitively. The più allegro (track 3, 6’29"), which prepares the way for the reprise of the cello solo, has a beautiful nocturnal glow.

I wouldn’t describe the account of the finale that is provided here by Backhaus and Böhm as unbuttoned. In fact it’s rather serious and straight-faced but it is well played nonetheless and rounds off a very good account of the concerto. This performance would certainly not dislodge in my affections the classic accounts either by Gilels (either with Jochum on DG or his earlier traversal with Reiner for RCA, if you can find a copy) or by Solomon (Testament) but it’s still a commendable reading which admirers of Backhaus will want to hear.

The generous coupling is an account of one of Schumann’s greatest achievements in the genre of solo piano music. Backhaus’s performance of the C major Fantasia is one that commands attention throughout. By turns he plays with nobility and poetry, as the music demands. This is a notable performance, one that is especially satisfying in the spacious andante sostenuto with which the work ends.

This is a very interesting disc, which is well worth considering at the modest price asked by Hänssler – but I do wish they’d provide the notes in the booklet and include in them some information about the soloist, placing these performances in the context of the career of this distinguished pianist.


John Quinn

 



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Sheva
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