> Beethoven Piano Sonatas Vol 2 Backhaus [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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  Founder: Len Mullenger

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Favourite Piano Sonatas Volume 2
Tempest Op 31 No 2
Appassionata Op 57
A Therese Op 78
Alla tedesca Op 79
Les Adieux Op 81a

Wilhelm Backhaus, piano
Recorded 1959-1969
ELOQUENCE DECCA 467 240-2 [77’21]


Backhaus recorded the "32" twice. His mono set was superseded but not necessarily surpassed by the stereo remakes from which come these five sonatas – with the exception of the Appassionata which was common to both sets as Backhaus died before he could re-record it. The given date of 1959 in this Eloquence Decca release must relate to the reprocessed-in-stereo version of that year.

It was fashionable for many years to judge Backhaus in the scale and find him wanting. His prodigious early recordings were just too fluent, his Beethovenian credentials too coarse and his rhythmic licence too extreme. Beside the venerated Schnabel he seemed unintellectual, next to Kempff unpoetic; even comparison to an earlier generation of leading Beethovenians seemed to work against him – he had, for example, little of Lamond’s artful insight. But the five sonatas here enshrined go some way to confirming that Backhaus’s gruff plainness was as distinguishing a feature of his playing as the supposedly more elevated characteristics of Schnabel were a defining part of his.

In the Tempest he is more unvarnished than elemental; there is a directness to his phrasing that is distinctly attractive but also times in the slow movement when a rather inexpressive and slightly monotonous feeling can descend. One can also feel a slight metrical lethargy to his playing here though it is maybe as well to consider it as of a piece with his conception of the sonata as a whole. Certainly he is quite unlike the more flamboyant and skittish Schnabel in the finale – instead he is solid, patrician with some notably fine playing. The Appassionata reveals his deep seriousness of purpose and the fixity of his conception. There are times when his rubato does seem excessive but never arbitrary. He observes the con moto marking of the andante – with, again, some superficially unevenly applied rubato. But there is also some excellent – ‘exquisite’ is not really a word one can ascribe to Backhaus – left hand staccato. If the movement emerges as a little "straight" it is still powerfully alive. He attacks the Appassionata’s finale with rough accents, occasionally some overused pedal, but he brings out individual lines with accelerandos and big powerful chording. Altogether this is a systematically rugged and visceral performance.

In the two little Opp 78 and 79 sonatas we can again appreciate the chordal depth he can sink (especially in the opening movement of A Therese) – if a little unrelieved in its insistence. And also the straight-faced humour of the Presto alla tedesca of Sonata No 25 with its affecting and charmingly understated slow movement and the sheer rightness and aplomb of the vivace. In Les Adieux, the sonata of gentle regret, he is equally successful at conveying pensiveness and energy, wistfulness and release.

Backhaus’s are not the most subtle and hair-triggered of responses; he is not a dazzling colourist or a transcendental technician. But there is great nobility and pianistic honesty in his playing and these are qualities that belong only to the rarest of musicians.

Jonathan Woolf



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