Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Sonatas
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
rec. 1950-54, Victoria Hall, Geneva. Mono
Track-listing below
8 CDs available singly
PRISTINE AUDIO PAKM 051-058 [8 CDs: 9:00:00]
Given that Backhaus re-recorded the Beethoven sonatas in stereo - with one exception, the Hammerklavier - his earlier mono set might be thought to be supplanted, at least sonically. That was the intention when the later set was made, and the mono set has been very much the lesser known quantity. If you have the sonata cycle by Backhaus it’s more likely than not that you’ll have the stereo set, whereas with Wilhelm Kempff’s two cycles it’s not quite so simple and it’s as likely that you’ll have the outstanding and frequently available mono as the stereo. Now that Pristine Audio has restored this mono set, as well as Backhaus’s Beethoven concerto cycle, there is far greater choice in these matters than before.
One reason the mono set was so soon supplanted was perhaps the then ineradicable nature of some of its purely technical and acoustic problems. The later set was a very much more effective one from these standpoints. That, too, will have had some bearing on the lack of subsequent LP and CD re-releases of this set, though there was an Italian production some years ago, to which I’ve not had access and which, in any case, is no longer available in conventional disc form, and I don’t think it’s available as a download either.
What follows is a brief pointer as to some of the performances, their strengths and limitations, and some of those technical problems.
Both Op.22 and Op.26, the Funeral March, are highly elevated examples of Backhaus’s art. In both there are examples of rubati that may be thought obtrusive, but this seems of little account when the playing is projected so thoughtfully, and sensitively. Op.26 is a particularly good place to start in the Backhaus pilgrimage. The Moonlight is no-nonsense, direct and rather heavy in places, and not always rhythmically tight enough, whilst the Pastoral adopts a rather smoothed out, but tersely rough approach which will certainly appeal to some. The Op.49 duo are small scale but attractively dispatched. The Waldstein is extremely fine; he always played this resourcefully, energetically and successfully, even emphatically in places.
The Appassionata is a success in Backhaus’s own terms, which are those of technical accomplishment and a certain intensity without, in the slow movement, any prettifying. This last quality, Beethovenian beautification, was not one in Backhaus’s arsenal, and nor would he have wished it to have been; any more than Arrau was - his word - ‘lacy’ in Beethoven or any other composer, come to that. In their different ways these two pianists approached Beethoven with total integrity.
Les Adieux is rather dry-eyed, though this relatively formal, almost objectified account is not without expressive - or modified expressive - interest. He certainly emphasises some of the rough-hewn quality embedded in the music, even if not all the structural solutions he finds seem wholly convincing. Op.90 in E minor is taken with considerable romantic latitude in places, where Backhaus’s rubato - always a contentious interpretative area - can seem structurally dangerous.
The Hammerklavier, which served both cycles, is a monumentally authoritative, direct and technically imposing reading drawing on all his long years of experience. Some find it rather dour but it has a remarkable ability to concentrate attention and listening to this April 1952 performance reminds one, yet again, of his technical excellence. Live recordings given far later than this studio one, a few of which I’ve reviewed here, bear out the point. He was exceptionally well prepared in any circumstance.
Op.109 is direct, shorn of artifice but sometimes rather stolid. It lacks the philosophical elevation of Wührer, and the intense concentration of Solomon. Op.110 is decidedly more impressive, indeed one of the most sheerly impressive and commanding performances in this set. His acute awareness of structure is not, here, derailed by imposed rubati; his tone remains rounded and full, and the performance is cumulatively very moving.
Andrew Rose has applied his interventionist technology to attempt to ameliorate some of the more grievous problems inherent in this Decca series. Prominent seems to have been terrible pitch problems. I can certainly hear something of the acoustic deficiencies that bedevilled parts of the cycle, but I can also see that these have been dealt with sensitively, even though sterner listeners may suggest that the intervention level on the acoustic matter - as opposed to pitching, where we should all be agreed - is perhaps excessive. That’s a personal matter and I would suggest that it’s been successfully done.
This review has only scratched the surface of the cycle. The most important point to note is that it is now available, whereas before it was hard to source. One can endlessly compare and contrast this earlier set with the later one, as well as contrasting Backhaus with such widely divergent stylists as Schnabel, Arrau and Kempff - just for a start - which should keep one, if so inclined, busy for a considerable amount of time.
Jonathan Woolf  

Sensitively and successfully transferred these readings are direct and shorn of artifice.

see also review of Decca release of the later (1952-69) Backhaus complete set of sonatas by Ian Bailey

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano sonatas
CD 1 [79:27]
Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.2 No. 1 (1795) [14:41]
Piano Sonata in A major, Op.2 No. 2 (1795) [19:27]
Piano Sonata in C major, Op.2 No. 3 (1795) [22:02]
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op. 7 (1796-7) [23:20]
CD 2 [70:08]
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 10 No. 1 (1796-8) [14:01]
Piano Sonata in F major, Op, 10 No. 2 (1796-8) [10:15]
Piano Sonata in D major, Op. 10 No. 3 (1796-98) [19:07]
Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 13, Grande Sonate Pathétique (1798-99) [15:55]
Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 14 No. 1 (1798-99) [10:51]
CD 3 [66:40]
Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 14 No. 2 (1798-99) [12:57]
Piano Sonata in B flat major, Op. 22 (1799-1800) [21:13]
Piano Sonata in A flat major, Op. 26 (1800-01) [18:38]
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op. 27 No.1 Sonata quasi una Fantasia (1800-01) [13:52]
CD 4 [75:27]
Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 Sonata quasi una Fantasia, Moonlight (1801) [15:10]
Piano Sonata in D major, Op. 28, Pastorale (1801) [19:26]
Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 31 No. 1 (1801-02) [19:23]
Piano Sonata in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 The Tempest (1801-02) [21:23]
CD 5 [64:29]
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op. 31 No. 3 (1801-02) [18:46]
Piano Sonata in G minor, Op. 49 No. 1 (1795-98) [6:54]
Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 49 No. 2 (1795-96) [7:28]
Piano Sonata in C major, Op. 53 Waldstein (1803-04) [21:29]
Piano Sonata in F major, Op. 54 (1804) [9:43]
CD 6 [55:41]
Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, Appassionata (1804-05) [20:17]
Piano Sonata in F sharp minor, Op. 78 (1809) [9:50]
Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 79 (1809) [9:27]
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op. 81a, Das Lebwohl (Les Adieux) (1809-10) [16:06]
CD 7 [71:01]
Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 90 (1814) [12:08]
Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 101 (1816) [17:27]
Piano Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106. Für das Hammerklavier (1817-18) [41:23]

CD 8 [56:26]
Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 109 (1820) [17:33]
Piano Sonata in A flat major, Op. 110 (1821) [17:15]
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111 (1821-22) [21:39]