Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Compete Etudes Opp.10 (1829–32) and 25 (1832–36) [53:16]
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
rec. 1928
PROFIL PH10070 [53:16]

What a shame. Backhaus’s pioneering set of the Opp. 10 and 25 Etudes certainly deserves wide currency, not merely because this was the first such set ever to be recorded, but because the resulting performances are so often so engrossing a document of his art. He didn’t record the Nouvelles Etudes, which is understandable in the circumstances, and his remained the only traversal of both sets of Etudes until Robert Lortat in 1931. Cortot followed a few years later. Kilenyi recorded the complete Op.10 in 1937 and Koczalski both sets during 1938-39.

Backhaus’s name at the head of this list of pianists long associated with Chopin may therefore appear anomalous, but the view we generally hold of Backhaus now is not the one held of him in 1928. We see him as something of a heavy set, stolid practitioner, but this is something of a chronological quirk, given that he lived so long and was performing publicly until the last week of his life. Long associated with the Austro-Germanic repertoire, he was actually a far more open-minded artist. This set of the Etudes should not be therefore necessarily be seen through the prism of his much later Beethoven and Brahms recordings but rather, it seems to me, through the perspective of the man who was the first ever to record a concerto on disc – the admittedly very abridged version of the Grieg, back in 1909 – and the man who also recorded Albéniz and Smetana in his first sessions.

He did revisit some – but by no means all - of the Etudes in the early 1950s for Decca, performances that have been republished by Testament, but they’re not in the same league as these 1928 ones. These 78 recordings do have moments of reserve and perhaps excessive clarity at the expense of characterisation, it’s true, but more often than not Backhaus is fleet and convincing, enshrining a degree of noble gravity. There’s also an example of him modulating into an etude in the Op.25 set.

The ‘shame’ relates to the transfers. I’ve not heard the IDIS disc that also offers the Etudes [IDI 6559] but I have heard Marston’s transfer of Op.10 No.6 in its Chopin box [54001-2], the old EMI LP twofer of all the Etudes [EX 2903453] and also about half a dozen Etudes on 78s. If you have the LP, stick with it. This Profil transfer is excessively filtered and treble starved and the result is a cloudy affair lacking tonal definition and air. A treble boost didn’t help, and I suspect even those with a high performing graphic equaliser will find it not really worth the trouble. It’s a double shame because the documentation is good.

Jonathan Woolf

Sadly, excessively filtered and treble starved … a cloudy affair lacking tonal definition and air.