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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

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Wilhelm BACKHAUS
Complete British Acoustic Recordings 1908-25
Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Prelude in C sharp Minor

Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Liebestraum No 3
Hungarian Rhapsody No 2

Georg Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)

Harmonious Blacksmith

Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Prelude Op 28 No 1
Etude Op 10 No1
Fantasy-Impromptu Op 66
Etude Op 25 No 8
Etude Op 25 No 9
Etude Op 10 No 5
Etude Op 25 No 6
Etude No 25 No 1
Waltz Op 70 No 1
Waltz in E Op posthumous
Waltz Op 42
Etude Op 10 No 7
Waltz Op 64 No 1
Polonaise Op 53
Waltz Op 42
Berceuse Op 57

Eduard GRIEG (1843-1907)

Norwegian Bridal Procession
Concerto Movements 1 and 3 – abridged

Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)

Sonata No 1 – Perpetuum mobile

Niccolo PAGANINI arr LISZT (1782-1840)

La Campanella

J S BACH (1685-1750)

Prelude and Fugue No 3

SEELING

Etude in E flat Minor Op 10 No 12

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Novelette Op 21 No 7
Wildmung arr LISZT
Traumeswirren

Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)

Polka in F

Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)

Sonata in F l188
Sonata in G L490

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Moment Musicale
Hark Hark the Lark arr LISZT

Leo DELIBES (1836-1891) arr DOHNANYI

Naila Waltz

Moritz MOSKOWSKI

Caprice Espagnole Op 37

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) arr BACKHAUS

Don Juan Serenade

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Variations on a theme of Paganini

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) arr HUTCHESON

A Midsummer Night’s Scherzo

Isaac ALBENIZ (1860-1909)

Triana (Iberia No 6)

Wilhelm Backhaus, piano
Recorded 1908-1928
PEARL GEMS 0102 [2 CDs: 148’26]


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Think of Wilhelm Backhaus and you may well think of his Brahms and Beethoven. Noble, occasionally granitic recordings from the 1950s they were replete with a rugged and unsentimentalised clarity. But the D’Albert pupil was, in his youth, something of a discographic pioneer and far more the colourist and technician than he may have appeared from his stolid appearance toward the end of his performing life.

Backhaus was born in 1884 and his training had pretty much finished by his mid-teens. He made his British debut in 1900. His admiration for Rachmaninov and Debussy – two composers not especially associated with him – was in his early years strong and his musical sympathies broad. He was signed by Fred Gaisberg very early, in 1908, to record for the Gramophone Company. In a catalogue bursting with stellar names – Grunfeld, Pugno, Pachmann, Paderewski, Godowsky, Hoffmann and Grainger – Backhaus’s was the youngest and maybe the most glamorous. Though these discs chart his complete British acoustics they omit the German acoustics (Schallplatte Grammophon – ten sides from 1916) but these can be found on Biddulph LHW38. The set does include a series of Backhaus’s early electrics and it was around this time, in the later 1920s, that his repertoire contracted to the Austro-Germanic one familiar from the last three decades of his life.

These discs are studded with felicities of a highly personalised kind. Technique is allied to imagination though nothing is ever taken to excess. It’s often forgotten that it was Backhaus – not Cortot – who made the first recording, in 1928, of the Chopin Etudes and the composer is liberally to be found in the first disc. There is much to admire; the fierceness of the Chopin Prelude op 28 No 1, the pearl dazzling tone of the op 10 etude that follows, the dazzling rubato of the Liszt Liebestraum or his Weber. If you think him staid listen to this 1908 Perpetuum mobile – it’s very, very fast with vigorous bass accents, strident gallops, almost out of control and a breathless excitement. Listen too to the singing tone of the Paganini-Liszt La Campanella with its sportive, risk-taking rubato and strong dynamics. Maybe the Bach Prelude and Fugue is slightly lumpy in the left hand but the two following Chopin Etudes are consistently convincing. The Grieg Concerto was the first ever Concerto recording, abridged to six and a half minutes. The orchestra comprised Stroh violins (fiddles with horns attached to direct the tone toward the recording horn; even soloists regularly used them at the time) and the recording was obviously one of some historical significance remaining the one such piano concerto until Lamond recorded the Beethoven Concerto in 1922. Backhaus’s rubato in the Op 70 No 1 Waltz is precisely judged even if there is a slight lack of optimum clarity at the start of the succeeding opus posthumous Waltz. Possibly some slightly out of scale chording at the end too.

It’s true that very occasionally elements of heaviness are apparent – in the first of the Scarlatti sonatas, though he was an early proponent of the composer on record. The earlier Moment Musicale – the electric remake is included – is a little strait laced as well. But no one should underestimate his sheer rhythmic verve – listen to the Smetana Polka, full of buoyancy and striding animation or the elegance of the Delibes-Dohnanyi, for all the triviality of the piece. His Don Juan Serenade is delicious, and the electric remake even better though maybe his Schumann lacks a requisite ecstasy (not a Backhaus strong suit, then or later). One of the really high points on these discs – and there are, as can be seen, many – are the Brahms Paganini Variations from 1925 – rearranged slightly in ordering for 78 and omitting repeats. This was the only Brahms he recorded in the early years and presages the Brahmsian titan to come.

Transfers are by Seth Winner and notes are by Donald Manildi. These two discs, utilising good, quiet copies, transferring them with discreet skill, presents the first twenty years on record of a talent far too easily taken for granted. These records will show you why his contemporaries held him in such esteem and why he continues to hold a sovereign place in the history of the piano.

Jonathan Woolf

 


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