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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major Op. 73 Emperor (1810) [38:17]
Piano Sonata No.21 in C major Op. 53 Waldstein (1804) [22:19]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Etudes Op.25 (1832-36): No.1 in A flat major [2:09]; No.2 in F minor [1:27]; No.3 in F major [1:50]; No.6 in G sharp minor [2:04]; No.8 in D flat major [1:08]; No.9 in G flat major [1:07]; No.5 in G flat major [1:44]
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Georg Solti
rec. Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne, June 1956 (Concerto); Beethovenhalle, Bonn, September 1959 (Sonata); Lugano, June 1953 (Etudes)
MEDICI ARTS MM006-2 [72:33]

Backhaus left behind three recordings of the Emperor Concerto and they have been supplemented by off-air performances. This one derives from Cologne in June 1956 and was taped when Backhaus was a venerable but still active seventy-two. There are few signs of any executant weaknesses in a strongly focused and ultimately successful performance. Solti might not be the first conductor one would think of to accompany him but he’d worked with older men before – not least in his early days as a pianist and specifically as an accompanist to Kulenkampff.
The performance is notable for the exceptional control of rubato exercised by Backhaus. In more indulgent and overtly expressive hands this may well have elided into mannerism but Backhaus’s control is long, experienced and practised. The spaciousness and pervasiveness of the rubati do not impede the directional curve of the music making, so acute is Solti’s marshalling of the orchestral picture. And that brings its own very particular sonorities. The winds have a very distinctive narrow bore sound – “steely” in the annotator’s apt word – and the horns have a very personal sound that will not be to all tastes. Nevertheless these tonal idiosyncrasies do add to the individualism of the performance. True there are moments when the recording doesn’t flatter the piano tone – it can be a touch clangy – but equally it doesn’t harden the string tone in the slow movement when Solti unveils a sweetly grave line. Backhaus proves intermittently effective here. In the finale though we find the dynamic gradients and rubati once more put to considerable effect. There’s a certain aristocratic refinement, and a palpable sense of power in reserve from the seventy-two year old that compel admiration.
The Waldstein sonata was recorded three years later in 1959. The recorded sound is not so bad though it is rather constricted and brings to bear a certain metallic quality to Backhaus’s tone. This is a slightly up-and-down performance, tonally congruent, tending to the determined in tempo terms but against that advocating a sure sense of piety in the opening movement. There are some fudges in the finale and some drummed out, rather impatient sounding, left hand accents.
The Chopin Études were taped in Lugano in 1953. Backhaus had first recorded some of the Opp.10 and 25 as far back as 1908 though his 1928 electrics are more generally recommendable for obvious reasons. The G flat major Op.25/9 shows an almost inevitable slowing up of responses in this repertoire though he exhibits Old School proclivities by modulating into it from the preceding D flat major. Rubati and accelerandi were invariably more extreme, athletic and exciting back in 1908. The D flat major was similarly more vital and masculine pre both world wars. By 1953 Backhaus’s dynamics were very much more constrained and less colouristic. There’s real finger clarity in the 1953 Op.10 G flat major but one prefers his earlier, rather more undisciplined, abrupt and colouristically vital self.
Uneven though some of the performances are, and relatively plentiful though live 1950s Backhaus material has become, there is still a place for these ancillary performances - ancillary that is to the commercial discography. The Concerto is the most exciting and important performance; the Chopin conforms to all that we know about Backhaus’s invariable slowing up - and withdrawal - in his playing of the Études.
Jonathan Woolf


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