Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1854/58) [43:42]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Andante con Variazioni in F minor, XVII: No. 6 (1793) [9:15]
Fantasia in C major, XVII: No. 4 (1789) [5:23]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1878/81) [46:25]
Sonata No. 52 in E flat major, XVI: No. 52 (1794) [14:55]
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm (Concerto No.1); Carl Schuricht
rec. June 1953, Grosser Musikvereinssaal, Vienna (Brahms Concerto No.1); 25-26
May 1953 (Concerto No.2); live, 1959, Vienna Festival (Andante con Variazioni,
Fantasia, Sonata No. 52). ADD
HÄNSSLER PROFIL PH11051 [58:22 + 61:22]
These recordings reissued on the Hänssler Profil label feature the playing
of eminent Leipzig born pianist Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969). He was admired
as a great Brahms interpreter and the two piano concertos were mainstays of
Backhaus’s repertoire. He played them regularly throughout this career.
A real inspiration for Backhaus occurred in 1895 when aged ten he met Brahms
who was conducting a concert of his two piano concertos with soloist Eugen d’Albert.
Backhaus toured extensively and left a considerable legacy of recordings. These
accounts of the Brahms piano concertos were recorded by the sixty-nine year
old Backhaus in 1953 at the Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna. We are given
the date of 1959 and the Vienna Festival as the venue for the three live Haydn
recordings for solo piano. The re-mastering has been carried out by Holger Siedler
at the THS Studio in Dormagen, Germany. Over time my ears managed to adjust
to the fifty year old sound which certainly isn’t perfect. It contains
some distortion and considerable brightness in the forte passages but is generally
satisfactory for its age. An improvement over the Brahms the sound quality of
the Haydn scores was well detailed and extremely agreeable.
Brahms commenced his three movement Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1854 around
the time of the suicide attempt by his friend and mentor Robert Schumann. I
was impressed with the sheer dramatic sweep of Backhaus’s playing. Demonstrating
considerable power and passion in the outside movements Backhaus conveys a heartbreaking
feeling in the Adagio playing with a blend of poetry and tenderness.
I felt an authentic sense of drama in the stormy Rondo - Finale.
It was some twenty-four years later when Brahms commenced his Piano Concerto
No. 2. Cast in four movements it was completed in 1881. In this 1953 interpretation
Backhaus combines grandeur with telling sensitivity. I loved the bravura ending
of the towering opening movement and the fire and drama of the Scherzo.
Opening with a glorious cello melody the heart of the work is the reverential
Andante with Backhaus laying bare a calm and haunting introspection.
I enjoyed the exuberant and energetic playing in the Finale with uplifting
urgency well to the fore. Across both concertos the playing of the orchestra
offers sensitive support.
These performances are most impressive with a distinct sense of effortless virtuosity.
However, my benchmark recordings of these Brahms concertos remain those from
soloists Leon Fleisher and Emil Gilels. Best of all is Fleisher’s commanding
and highly dramatic accounts with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under Georg
Szell pleasingly recorded in 1958 and 1962 at Cleveland’s Severance Hall
on Sony Classical ‘Masterworks Heritage’ MH2K 63225. Gilels accounts
are strong, poetic and thoughtful. They were made with the Berlin Philharmonic
under Eugen Jochum and were extremely well recorded in 1972 at the Jesus Christ
Church, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon 447 446-2.
The three Haydn scores, recorded live in concert, make for appealing listening.
The first score is the Andante con Variazioni in F minor from 1793 and
was possibly intended as the first movement of a sonata. It was later renamed
as Sonata - Un piccolo Divertimento. Generally regarded as Haydn’s
greatest piano work for piano the Andante con variazioni is seen as a
highpoint of his entire output. In 1789 Haydn wrote to his publisher about his
Fantasia ‘Capriccio’in C major, “In
a moment of most excellent good humour I have written a quite new Capriccio
for the pianoforte whose tastefulness, singularity and special construction
cannot fail to win applause from connoisseurs and amateurs alike.”
Completed in 1794 Haydn’s Sonata No. 52 was his final piano sonata
and is often acknowledged as his finest in the genre.The score was composed
for Therese Jansen, a leading London pianist. These performances are both lucid
and sensitive with light and shade adding to the allure. Declining to inflate
the emotions Backhaus follows a middle course that really pays dividends.
Most impressive. Effortless virtuosity. But does not displace my benchmark recordings.