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]
Johannes BRAHMS
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1878/81) [46:25]
Joseph HAYDN
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 (Concerto No.2)
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 FantasiaCapriccioin 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.
Michael Cookson
Most impressive. Effortless virtuosity. But does not displace my benchmark recordings.