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Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major Op.83
Waltzes Op.39
Ballades Op.10 Nos 1 and 2
Hungarian Dances Nos. 6 in D flat major and 7 in A major
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Saxon State Orchestra/Karl Böhm
Recorded 1932-39
NAXOS 8.110766 [71.50]

Backhaus’s pre-War B flat major has been well served of late. I first encountered it on a German EMI LP box set devoted to Böhm but adherents will have encountered it in a number of CD incarnations, most recently on a two CD EMI set of the pianist’s Brahms (both concerti, the First with Boult, now also on Naxos, and many Intermezzi and Capriccios). Hänssler Classic has also issued the Second in a recommendable release. At budget price Naxos’s own edition makes an attractive proposition, not least to those who have also picked up that bracing, driving First with Boult and will wonder about the later work.

Backhaus, needless to say, bears little similarity with the sometimes effortful concerto soloist of his latter days, though those interested in pursuing these issues should certainly seek out the Schuricht (early 1950s) recording of the B flat major which may well be the best traversal of it that Backhaus has left us. Part of the reason lies with Böhm’s conducting which can be rather – unusually – prosaic. And the strings of the Saxon State (in fact the Dresden State and Opera Orchestra) can be distinctly thin – which you’ll notice almost immediately and in the absence of mass of tone in the tuttis. But Backhaus is leonine – fast, fluent, the odd smudged note in chordal passages mattering not a bit. His second movement is fresh and lied-like, taken at a forward moving tempo; gruffly manly. Some may find him too eruptive in the slow movement but he certainly conveys the turbulence and universality of the concerto in a performance of this kind and, often missed by others, the near brazen wit of the finale.

Of the smaller works the D minor Ballade (Edward) is richly voiced and the Waltzes are ebullient and tactile- the C sharp major is particularly vivacious, the G sharp minor rivettingly exciting, and the most famous, the A flat major, moves like the clappers.

For a wider conspectus of Backhaus’ pre-War Brahms the EMI double covers the ground but Naxos are now covering it themselves in single editions, very well and unproblematically transferred. And, as ever, the price is enticing.

Jonathan Woolf

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