Wilhelm Backhaus’s Beethoven recordings are an important foundation stone of his legacy on disc, not least the complete mono set he recorded for Decca in the early 1950s. That cycle, most recently to be found in a newly engineered and restored version on Pristine Audio, is the one to bear in mind when listening to this disc which contains three sonatas given in a recital performance at the Salle Gaveau in May 1953. The concert was recorded and broadcast by Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française.
Backhaus recorded the Op.10 No.2 sonata in March 1951 for Decca and here, a couple of years later, we find him taking a similar interpretative stance but for the finale. This movement shares a trait throughout the programme which is to vest faster movements with an even greater sense of dynamism than their studio brothers and sisters, but to retain the broad tempo decisions made for slow movements which are not, as one might have expected, taken more expansively live. They retain almost exactly the same proportions as the Deccas.
He had recorded the Funeral March
sonata, Op.26 back in June 1950. Again it’s the scherzo and the Allegro finale that bear the weight of amplified drama in this performance, faster, more driving, and more incisively articulated. Nearest in time to the studio inscription is the Moonlight
sonata, which he set down for Decca about seven months before this live Paris performance. It goes without saying by now that, whilst the performance is very similar to the familiar Decca, the finale is a touch more energised in Paris.
Backhaus was teamed with the Amadeus Quartet for the performance of Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34. It sounds as if the engineers artificially kept the volume down here, though that can be rectified easily and at no cost. The strings phrase sweetly and with expected warmth and they make a good foil for Backhaus’s more gaunt textures. When the Amadeus recorded it with Christoph Eschenbach for DG in 1968 they were faced with more of a classicist than Backhaus and the results were very different, with the mediation between the greater string weight of the Amadeus and the pianist’s cooler objective stance leading to fruitful tension. Backhaus offers truly sonorous and very different responses, goading the Amadeus to far fleeter tempi than was later the case. Indeed this is a driving, fluid and fast performance, exciting in the extreme - not least in an incendiary scherzo.
There are a few demerits. Applause starts, but is then abruptly cut-off. There’s a very brief moment of tape wow in the opening movement of Op.26 but it lasts for less than a second. Of more concern are the very brief gaps between pieces, most of which are one second in length. That’s also the case when we move from the Beethoven recital to the Brahms, where there’s a slightly fuzzy sound quality from time to time.
However the performances are without doubt worthy of preservation and they do offer more than just an amplification of the commercially recorded studio legacy.