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.