transfers of splendidly recorded HMVs from 1929-32. Mark Obert-Thorn
has sensibly used the Victor pressings in preference to the "frying
tonight" British originals – the Z pressings to be exact
– and they sound first class. As for the performances they vary
from entirely convincing – the Concerto – to rather more problematical.
Some have deigned to find fault with Boult’s conducting in the
D minor, preferring, say, the red-hot thrust of Reiner for Serkin.
I find him a notably resourceful accompanist, sympathetic yet
pressing when necessary. Backhaus was certainly not persona non
grata amongst conductors in 1932 but two years later, we learn
from another source, Bruno Walter was refusing to work with him,
labelling him a Hitler favourite and Nazi. Whatever he may or
may not have been – wasn’t Elly Ney a more deserving target of
contempt? – Backhaus was a leonine and magnificent champion of
the Concerto. I imagine there could be objections to some of his
sforzati, to what some may perceive as inflexibility and seeming
indifference but I have to say I capitulated. I think this is
a gloriously enveloping interpretation, a fusion of magisterial
command and architectural surety enriched by his tonal resources.
His post War remake in Vienna with Böhm was a considerably
less energised and engaged affair, and certainly never began to
match the complex beauty of his playing of the Adagio, much less
the athleticism and directional curve of his playing in the finale.
comparison, three years earlier and once more in London, the Paganini
Variations sound rather stiff, just too unyielding ever fully
to present much of a challenge to established leaders in the discography.
The Rhapsodies were recorded at around the same time as the Concerto
in advance of the Brahms centenary year, which saw a number of
recordings and a large number of concert series of the complete
works (the Menges Quartet, for instance, virtually sat in residence
at Wigmore Hall playing through the chamber music). Of the two
Op. 79 Rhapsodies the first, in B minor, receives a nobly if intermittently
affirmative reading but the G minor is vitiated by an unexpected
degree of crudity. I’d rather remember the Concerto and I would
strongly urge those unfamiliar with the recording to form their
own conclusions. The transfer, as I said, is genuinely excellent.
Others are or were around; it’s currently on Brilliant Classics
where it’s harnessed to a slew of Backhaus’s other concerto performances;
it is on Biddulph, tough to get now, and on Référence
where it’s coupled with the Second Concerto conducted by Böhm.
I don’t think, however, you can go far wrong with this transfer
and disc. Just don’t play the G minor Rhapsody first.