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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete piano sonatas

No. 1 in F minor op. 2 no. 1 ++
No. 2 in A major op. 2 no. 2 #
No. 3 in C major op. 2 no. 3 ##
No. 4 in E flat major op. 7 +++
No. 5 in C minor op. 10 no. 1 ++
No. 6 in F major op. 10 no. 2 ++
No. 7 in D major op. 10 no. 3 ++
No. 8 in C minor op. 13 "Pathétique" ***
No. 9 in E major op. 14 no. 1 #
No. 10 in G major op. 14 no. 2 #
No. 11 in B flat major op. 22 #
No. 12 in A flat major op. 26 "Funeral March" +
No. 13 in E flat major op. 27 no. 1 ##
No. 14 in C sharp minor op. 27 no. 2 "Moonlight" ***
No. 15 in D major op. 28 "Pastorale" ****
No. 16 in G major op. 31 no. 1 ##
No. 17 in D minor op. 31 no. 2 "Tempest" +
No. 18 in E flat major op. 31 no. 3 +
No. 19 in G minor op. 49 no. 1 #
No. 20 in G major op. 49 no. 2 #
No. 21 in C major op. 53 "Waldstein" **
No. 22 in F major op. 54 ##
No. 23 in F minor op. 57 "Appassionata" **
No. 24 in F sharp major op. 78 ##
No. 25 in G major op. 79 ++
No. 26 in E flat major op. 81A "Les Adieux" ****
No. 27 in E minor op. 90 ##
No. 28 in A major op. 101 +
No. 29 in B flat major op. 106 "Hammerklavier" *
No. 30 in E major op. 109 ****
No. 31 in A flat major op. 110 ++
No. 32 in C minor op. 111 ****
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, * April 1952; ** September 1958; **** November 1961;
+ March 1963; ++ October 1963 +++ November 1966; # March 1968; ## April 1969: Sofiensaal, Vienna, *** October 1958. ADD. ("Hammerklavier" Mono)
DECCA ORIGINAL MASTERS 475 7198 [8 CDs: 67:40 + 67:12 + 64:53 + 69:06 + 75:34 + 67:13 + 73:55 + 55.52]

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If you are in the market for a measured, considered - yet not unexciting - but crucially, consistent Beethoven sonata cycle, then I should say at the outset that you should look elsewhere. Instead I would point you toward, in no particular order and not exclusively, cycles by Alfred Brendel, Bernard Roberts, Alfredo Perl or Paul Lewis; the latter yet to be recorded for Harmonia Mundi, but an opinion based upon the recent broadcast of half the sonatas from Wigmore Hall recitals.

If however you want Beethoven sonatas with a strong character, occasionally irritating, sometimes baffling, but equally often magnetic, compelling and deeply satisfying you should give the present set a try.

My first contact with Backhaus’s Beethoven was, I guess, like many impecunious collectors in the early 1970s, via a World of the Great Classics compilation (SPA 69) – i.e. the "Moonlight", "Pathétique" and "Appassionata" coupled on LP. They became my benchmarks, and to a large degree remain so. I remember being especially impressed by the virtuosity allied to a sense of a real, unfolding "story" in each work. I had no idea at the time I was listening to a man in his 75th year, and probably would have been astonished if someone had told me.

Indeed one of the pre-eminent facets of Backhaus’s career was that he maintained a enviable technique, without overt display, throughout. The notes were always under his fingers, yet equally always at the service of the music not his ego. As Jeremy Siepmann records in his informative notes to this set: "To the end of his days there was almost nothing he couldn’t play with relative ease, and he housed in his memory most of the known pieces of piano literature."

Allied to this was an unfailing beauty of tone; plenty of power yes, but no ugly sounds. True some of his earlier recordings from the 78 era are more animated, yet there is absolutely no sense here of a stodgy old-timer managing by sheer dint of personality. If there are occasional passages of "stodge" it is more a factor of personality than deficiency.

Although I can’t confirm this from personal experience, since his career concluded just as my concertising was beginning, I very much get the impression Backhaus was "his own man". If he went into the studio on a particular day and felt a movement, or a whole sonata, should be played in a certain fashion then by god that was how it was going to be played; whatever producers, engineers or supporters might suggest to the contrary. Not that I imagine him ranting and raving at people; more that he achieved his goal through a stubborn and purposeful insistence on his own vision. Most of the time this approach seems to work; occasionally it doesn’t.

I undertook a quite detailed comparison of sonata no 27, op. 90, a favourite of mine. Written about the time of "Fidelio", it is dedicated to Count Morits von Lichnowsky

to celebrate his forthcoming marriage. The Count was eager to discover its meaning and so he badgered the composer to reveal the secret. Beethoven eventually spoke of the first movement as "a struggle between head and heart", whilst the second was a "conversation with the beloved". How serious Beethoven was, indeed whether he had his tongue firmly in his cheek, is not known. Whatever the truth the work is often seen as the divide between the middle and late sonatas, although Paul Lewis in his recent traversal interestingly speaks of it more as a bridge between the two groups.

There should be a sense of discourse, even struggle, in the first movement, whilst the second embraces surely one of Beethoven’s most beautiful melodies, well worthy of any "beloved".

In his Wigmore recital Paul Lewis rather understated the opening movement, which Backhaus articulates more, and to better purpose. It feels as though the older man is really "telling like it is", whilst Lewis appeared to be trying to caress the music more. Then in the second the roles reverse. Backhaus sounds occasionally "matter-of-fact", whilst Lewis really sings the beautiful melody. Interestingly Alfredo Perl, and to a slightly lesser degree, Alfred Brendel, follow Lewis’s pattern. Friedrich Gulda, ever the individualist, in his second traversal of the sonatas originally issued on Amadeo LPs and now to be found on Brilliant Classics CDs, is even more violently contrasted. The second movement is more matter-of-fact than Backhaus, penny-plain even. Like many of his performances Gulda’s sonatas can suffer from unsympathetically fast speeds, albeit that some of his interpretations do act as a real wake-up call!

Siepmann elsewhere in his notes to this set discusses Backhaus’s oft described simplicity: "… he understood the degree to which the notes can look after themselves"; a process which can on occasion result in playing that sounds rather strait-laced, even bald. In the finale of the "Waldstein" for instance, that wonderful transition from darkness to light, so reminiscent of the end of Fidelio, goes for comparatively little under his fingers. Just compare this passage, indeed this movement with Arrau, who introduces the great melody almost imperceptibly, and then lets it flower magnificently, and you’ll hear what I mean. Whilst Backhaus tends to "ping" out the melodic line in the treble, Arrau judiciously "places" the notes.

Similarly the slow movement of the "Pastorale" seems to just pass by. Alfredo Perl by contrast is splendid here, bringing out an almost sinister, "figures in a moonlight garden", strand to the music not at all common among pianists, but difficult to erase from the memory once lodged. Yet on the other hand go to the "Tempest", especially the final allegretto, and Backhaus sounds strong-minded, purposeful and beautifully articulated, with that pearl-like tone characteristic of much of his best playing. And so I could go on … but I hope by now you will have some idea where I stand.

To speak briefly about the sound quality. Most of the recordings originate from Geneva; a couple from the Sofiensaal in Vienna. Only one, the 1952 "Hammerklavier" is in mono. Generally the recordings are fine. Just occasionally, as on disc 5, moving from Geneva c.1968 (op. 49 nos. 1 and 2), to the same hall some ten years earlier ("Waldstein") one experiences a slight change in perspective and a sudden increase in background hiss, but my ears soon adjusted. In one or two instances, for example in op. 90, there was a certain "fuzziness" to the sound which I couldn’t avoid. As soon as I switched to other sonatas the piano image clicked back into place.

To conclude; Backhaus is not a panacea in these works, but I wouldn’t want to be without him. Like life he is from time to time frustrating, perplexing, indifferent … and yet … equally rewarding, stimulating and difficult to erase from the memory.

Did I enjoy this set? – very much. Would I have bought it myself? – almost certainly. Do I recommend it? – with provisos, definitely. Is it the only set to own? – with a genius such as Beethoven, how could it be. Nevertheless…enjoy!

Ian Bailey



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