Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 (1805-06) [32:32]
Symphony No. 7 in A major Op. 92 [39:23]
Coriolan overture, op. 62 (1807) [9:44]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55, 'Eroica' (1803) [56:07].
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
rec. 17 January, 1954 & 17 February, 1962 (Eroica), Musikverein, Vienna. Mono
ORFEO C901162B [72:39 + 66:33]

My first thought on encountering the first item on the programme here was that we would be in for a treat, given that it features the dream team of Backhaus and Knappertsbusch performing one of the former’s favourite works. My second, more ungrateful and illogical reflection, given that this was a live performance in 1954, was how rewarding it would have been to be able to hear them in decent stereo, studio sound, instead of the thin, wiry, distant mono we are given, regularly punctuated by the explosive coughs and sneezes which were no doubt the result of the Viennese winter chill. The closing pages of both the Andante and the finale suffer in particular from bronchial intrusions and the low-level volume of the recording does not help disguise them.

However, in purely musical terms, this is indeed just the performance I would have hoped for. The opening is all serenity until Backhaus unleashes those steely fingers on the semiquaver passage-work which elaborates the main theme and the whole piece unfolds with such assured, majestic clarity. Backhaus bring enormous energy and attack to the closing “Vivace” and the audience stop hacking long enough to demonstrate their appreciation enthusiastically.

Knappertsbusch, as was his wont, launches straight into the Seventh Symphony before the audience has stopped applauding and certain dedicated members of it resume their devotion to providing a percussive obbligato. He brings a massive solidity to the chordal downbeats of that opening; it’s just a pity that the harsh, fuzzy, muddy sound cannot enhance their impact. This is a grand, unhurried reading - and scarcely a bar passes without a cough. The eerie, menacing opening to the “Allegretto” is similarly afflicted. The Presto is driven and propulsive; the Finale rather lumbers to begin with but its cumulative momentum and sense of purpose are ultimately very convincing – and even the coughers are either quietened or drowned out. If you can tolerate the audience noise, you may hear a powerful and compelling account of this symphony by Knappertsbusch in vintage form.

The “Coriolan” overture provides a riveting prelude to the “Eroica” on the second CD, although of course it was actually recorded eight years earlier at the same concert as the previous two works on CD 1. As before, Knappertsbusch begins before the audience has settled and you may hear him stamp on the podium at the climax of the piece; this is really energised music-making.

The “Eroica” is very similar to the superb recording Knappertsbusch made with the Bremen Philharmonic in 1951 on the Tahra label; the opening is very leisurely but never slack, simply weighty. Similarly, in the Scherzo there is no scurrying rush to the winning post but a mighty surge. The notes by Gottfried Kraus put it accurately talking of “an intensity of plying that we simply can’t experience any more”. This is playing on an epic scale, intent upon narrating a great drama. Happily, the sound is better here in 1962 and the audience less tubercular.

Orfeo has already provided so many better live recordings and radio broadcasts from this era, so ultimately it is rather regrettable that these are so compromised by their sound quality and audience incursions; nonetheless you may still hear well enough the stature of the performers and performances here.

Ralph Moore

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