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CD: Buywell

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
CD 1
Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor op.15 [43:37]*
Capriccio in B minor op.79/2 [02:52]
Intermezzo in E flat op. 117/1 [04:21]
Rhapsody in B minor op. 79/1 [07:39]
Intermezzo in E op. 116/6 [02:33]
Intermezzo in E minor op. 119/2 [04:11]
Intermezzo in C op. 119/3 [01:28]
CD 2
Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat op. 83 [48:13]*
Six Piano Pieces op. 118 [20:22]
 Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm*
rec. June 1953, Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria (PC 1), November 1956, Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland (solo pieces), April 1967, Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria (PC 2)
 DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0800 [67:04 + 68:42]
Experience Classicsonline

Wilhelm Backhaus was born in 1884, played to Brahms - among others - in 1895, gave his first solo recitals in 1899, made his first gramophone records in 1907, began giving complete Beethoven sonata cycles in 1929 and gave his last concert less than a week before his death in 1969. Brahms figured largely in his recording programmes and his pre-war 78s of solo pieces have perhaps been reissued more frequently - on Pearl for example - than the 1956 clutch captured here in early stereo. He set down both concertos before the war: no. 1 in 1932 with the BBC SO under Boult and no. 2 in 1939 with the Saxon State Orchestra under Böhm. He returned to them both in 1953, pairing the present no. 1 with no. 2 under Schuricht, also with the Vienna Philharmonic. I daresay most piano buffs would rather have had this latter here. The re-engagement of Böhm and the VPO for the late no. 2 means that the packaging announces an "intégrale" which is more apparent than real.
The booklet has a thorough presentation of the music and, especially, a detailed analysis of Backhaus's pianism, both by Walter Frei, who clearly heard the pianist regularly. While welcoming this sort of informed comment, I have to say that he back-pedals on the case for the prosecution and some present-day listeners may be puzzled at the disparity between what is claimed and what is actually heard.
The performance which most lives up to Frei's description is that of the First Concerto, not least thanks to Karl Böhm. Fundamentally a more excitable Brahms conductor than you would know from his comatose late symphony cycle, he launches the work at a grand maestoso with enough movement for it not to get stuck. The rocking second theme, which beaches many a performance, surges ahead unhurriedly but inexorably and some decidedly Furtwänglerian impetuosity is allowed in the climaxes.
When Backhaus enters he doesn't "do" anything in particular to the music, he just plays it grandly and solidly. He fits perfectly into the scheme which we now realize was shared from the beginning by two artists well used to working together and whose art had its roots in Brahms's own world.
At 12:36 the Adagio is the swiftest on my shelves. We're used to the idea that fast movements got faster and slow movements slower after the war - the "Karajan effect" - so it's interesting to find that the slowest available to me is actually the 1938 Schnabel/Szell - 15:55. Backhaus and Böhm are warm and natural. They do not sound hurried but I would describe the performance as ardent rather than searching. The finale is steady but vital and grand.
The short pieces completing this first disc provide a catalogue of the sort of things that caused people to be wary of Backhaus. It's certainly an energized view of Brahms but with ungainly accents, snatched phrases and unsettled tempi. I turned with relief to the disc of opp.116-9 by another pianist from a similar generation and background, Wilhelm Kempff, and found myself in another world of subtlety and imagination. Even in op. 119/2, the one piece from Backhaus which did not actually contain any objectionable features and which I consequently quite enjoyed, Kempff is nonetheless magical in another way.
But Backhaus is not to be written off so easily. Op. 118 shows him at his best. It's still a forthright view compared with Kempff but it works well as an alternative in all the pieces and sometimes better. Both pianists play no. 2 faster than we usually hear these days, in Kempff's case too fast for comfort, I find. On the other hand, when the music goes into a slower tempo and a major key in the middle section, Kempff produces a shaft of poetic illumination such as doesn't seem to exist in Backhaus's DNA. Backhaus's bold, knightly presentation of the Ballade, no. 3, is clearly preferable. Kempff sounds effete in comparison, beautiful as his middle section undoubtedly is. Kempff is magical in the first two pages of no. 4 where Backhaus is more conventionally agitated, but then it is Backhaus who finds the tragic force called for on the final page. Indeed, it may be said that, when Brahms veers towards a black hole, Kempff elegantly cushions the descent to the abyss while Backhaus follows him all the way. Thus, while Kempff's account of the friendly "Romanze", no. 5, especially the birdsong in the middle, is a miracle of grace, it is Backhaus who excels in the desolate no. 6.
Nor was Backhaus a spent force when he rerecorded the Second Piano Concerto in 1967. By chance I listened to this not long after hearing the 1929 Rubinstein/Coates version and it brought home to me just how much is lost if the music is sped through too easily. The gentle opening suggests that this performance is going to be a nostalgia trip but Böhm soon has things sitting up. Within a broad tempo his phrasing is detailed - more Gardiner than Karajan - and the sound is lean and muscular. He perhaps relaxes more than he did in the earlier no. 1, but then this is a work with a wider range of moods. Backhaus is still pretty well in command. Once again, he doesn't "do" a lot with the music, just presents it boldly and firmly. But somehow, in its unvarnished way, it seems to be enough, especially with such splendid orchestral support. Böhm is really inspired in the slow movement, perhaps encouraging Backhaus to tap a vein of poetry we don't always associate with him. The finale is a little slow, but Backhaus finds considerable delicacy, while Böhm ensures that things don't get heavy. I began by regretting that the earlier recording with Schuricht had not been chosen - and I would still like to hear it - but I must say this is a version worth having and of course the sound is far better than anything else here.
On account of the mixed vintages it's difficult to know who this album is aimed at. I daresay the perennially-lauded Gilels/Jochum is a safer recommendation from the analogue era (in stereo) but seekers after Brahms cannot ignore Backhaus.
Christopher Howell

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