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Decca Phase 4
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major Op. 73 Emperor (1810) [38:17]
Piano Sonata No.21 in C major Op. 53 Waldstein (1804)
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Etudes Op.25 (1832-36): No.1 in A flat major [2:09]; No.2
in F minor [1:27]; No.3 in F major [1:50]; No.6 in G sharp
minor [2:04]; No.8 in D flat major [1:08]; No.9 in G flat
major [1:07]; No.5 in G flat major [1:44]
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Georg Solti
rec. Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne, June 1956 (Concerto);
Beethovenhalle, Bonn, September 1959 (Sonata); Lugano, June
ARTS MM006-2 [72:33]
left behind three recordings of the Emperor Concerto
and they have been supplemented by off-air performances.
This one derives from Cologne in June 1956 and was taped
when Backhaus was a venerable but still active seventy-two.
There are few signs of any executant weaknesses in a strongly
focused and ultimately successful performance. Solti might
not be the first conductor one would think of to accompany
him but he’d worked with older men before – not least in
his early days as a pianist and specifically as an accompanist
The performance is notable
for the exceptional control of rubato exercised by Backhaus.
In more indulgent and overtly expressive hands this may well
have elided into mannerism but Backhaus’s control is long,
experienced and practised. The spaciousness and pervasiveness
of the rubati do not impede the directional curve of the
music making, so acute is Solti’s marshalling of the orchestral
picture. And that brings its own very particular sonorities.
The winds have a very distinctive narrow bore sound – “steely” in
the annotator’s apt word – and the horns have a very personal
sound that will not be to all tastes. Nevertheless these
tonal idiosyncrasies do add to the individualism of the performance.
True there are moments when the recording doesn’t flatter
the piano tone – it can be a touch clangy – but equally it
doesn’t harden the string tone in the slow movement when
Solti unveils a sweetly grave line. Backhaus proves intermittently
effective here. In the finale though we find the dynamic
gradients and rubati once more put to considerable effect.
There’s a certain aristocratic refinement, and a palpable
sense of power in reserve from the seventy-two year old that
The Waldstein sonata
was recorded three years later in 1959. The recorded sound
is not so bad though it is rather constricted and brings
to bear a certain metallic quality to Backhaus’s tone. This
is a slightly up-and-down performance, tonally congruent,
tending to the determined in tempo terms but against that
advocating a sure sense of piety in the opening movement.
There are some fudges in the finale and some drummed out,
rather impatient sounding, left hand accents.
The Chopin Études were
taped in Lugano in 1953. Backhaus had first recorded some
of the Opp.10 and 25 as far back as 1908 though his 1928
electrics are more generally recommendable for obvious reasons.
The G flat major Op.25/9 shows an almost inevitable slowing
up of responses in this repertoire though he exhibits Old
School proclivities by modulating into it from the preceding
D flat major. Rubati and accelerandi were invariably more
extreme, athletic and exciting back in 1908. The D flat major
was similarly more vital and masculine pre both world wars.
By 1953 Backhaus’s dynamics were very much more constrained
and less colouristic. There’s real finger clarity in the
1953 Op.10 G flat major but one prefers his earlier, rather
more undisciplined, abrupt and colouristically vital self.
Uneven though some of the
performances are, and relatively plentiful though live 1950s
Backhaus material has become, there is still a place for
these ancillary performances - ancillary that is to the commercial
discography. The Concerto is the most exciting and important
performance; the Chopin conforms to all that we know about
Backhaus’s invariable slowing up - and withdrawal - in his
playing of the Études.
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