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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor Op. 15
Variations on a Theme by Paganini Op. 35
Rhapsody in B minor Op. 79 No. 1
Rhapsody in G minor Op. 79 No. 2
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult
Recorded 1929-32
NAXOS 8.110699 [71.24]

Excellent 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.

By 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.

Jonathan Woolf



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