Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Chopin, Liszt, Schumann & encore pieces
HMV recordings 1925-1937
APR 6026 [2 CDs: 160:09]
The complete pre-War Beethoven recordings
APR 6027 [2 CDs: 142:18]
Wilhelm Backhaus’ recording career ran for sixty years, from 1908 until 1969, the year of his death. He was born and trained in Leipzig and, by all accounts, was a precocious youngster. The former Liszt pupil Eugen D'Albert put the “finishing touches” to his playing. In 1905 he won the Anton Rubinstein competition, and this kick-started his career. Concert tours to Australia and continental Europe followed. However, it took him much longer to establish a foothold in the States due, in part, to his shy and retiring personality.
He embraced the medium of recording early on, unlike Arthur Rubinstein and Artur Schnabel, and became something of a pioneer in the field. His first forays into the business were in September 1908. Whereas his later career focussed on the Austro/German Classics, in his younger days he performed and recorded a fair amount of Romantic encore-type fare, no doubt pandering to popular demand. World War II put his career on hold for a while, but he returned to HMV when hostilities ceased. In 1950 he transferred his allegiance to Decca.
I initially approached these Backhaus recordings with misgivings, no doubt based on my experience of his later work, more specifically his Decca complete mono and stereo Beethoven Sonata cycles dating from his last years. I have to say I’ve never enjoyed them, finding his approach impassive, unimaginative, unexciting and colourless. I was clearly wrong in writing him off, especially after having heard these early recordings recently reissued by APR. In short, they have been a revelation. I’m surprised how charismatic and fantasy-laden his playing was back then, with a technique that was dazzling to boot.
Vladimir Horowitz was suitably impressed by Backhaus’ Chopin Études and listening to both sets, recorded over two days in January 1928, one can see why. His impressive technique serves them well, and he performs them with precision and flair. I did have a couple of reservations in the first set. Op. 10 No. 3 is rather tentative and drags its feet a little; I prefer it more free-flowing. No. 8 lacks refinement and sounds heavy-handed. Other than that, No. 4 almost keeps pace with Richter’s account, and No. 12, the ‘Revolutionary’ is bold and dramatic. Op. 25 opens with a delicate ‘Aeolian Harp’, where the melody is eloquently picked out above the rippling arpeggios. In No. 2 the finger work is flawless, as are the treacherous thirds in No. 6. No. 7 is infused with melancholy and sadness, and No. 11 is dashed off with brilliance and élan.
The Chopin selection which follows further demonstrates Backhaus’ affinity for the composer. The Berceuse is exquisite, enhanced by a diaphanous pearl-like tone. Despite the left-hand metric regularity, there’s no hint of monotony. The waltzes, of which we have two, are subtly nuanced with tasteful rubato applied. In the Fantasie Impromptu he’s careful not to over-gild the lily in the middle section. The only bad apple is the Prelude, Op. 28, No. 1, performed on auto pilot, and devoid of poetry and refinement. He puts a repeat in, which isn’t in the score.
I find the Liszt items equally compelling. The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in no way sounds hackneyed, rather Backhaus savours the lyrical passages, which he plays with great sensitivity. In the arrangement of Widmung the melody is beautifully contoured and truly sings out, a quality I also found in the Liebesträume No. 3. From Schumann we get two pieces from Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. ‘Aufschwung’ makes a dramatic impact, and buoyant rhythms and sparkling finger work inform ‘Traumes Wirren’. Both were recorded in different sessions, with the sound quality of the former in much better shape. The Fantasie in C major, Op. 17 is, for me, the highlight of the entire set. It has nobility and emotional sweep. Passion and exuberance in the opening movement, and stirring rhythms in the second give way to poetic tenderness, timelessness and otherworldliness in the third.
Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Concertos were the first electrical recordings the pianist made with orchestra. HMV’s house conductor Landon Ronald partners in both, and a sympathetic collaborator he is at that. In the Fourth there’s grandeur, subtlety and refinement in good measure. The slow movement is an intimate dialogue between soloist and orchestra, with the line eloquently etched. In the Fifth, the opening cadenza is dashed off with unruffled ease, and the first movement is noble and magisterial. You’ll be won over by the gossamer delicacy of the slow movement, followed by the energy and resolve of the finale.
I was interested to read that it was HMV’s original intention to enlist Backhaus to record the first complete cycle of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. He refused, and they turned to Artur Schanbel instead. We have four sonatas, though, set down between 1927-1937, including the inevitable Moonlight - where would we be without it? I warmed to the startling contrast made between the deeply reflective opener and the vigorous thrust of the finale. In the Pathétique Backhaus doesn't invest the opening Grave with as much pathos as I would like, and he slows the tempo down a gear for the second subject of the Allegro molto which sounds slightly jarring. The slow movement is lovingly phrased. In Op. 111 the first movement’s struggle and conflict are vividly depicted. The Arietta is sublime and probing, with the cumulative effects of the variations each becoming more rhythmically complex, providing tension and drama as the movement progresses. The addition of a couple of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues as fillers is a pleasing bonus.
The transfers are excellent and breathe freshness and vitality into these old recordings; APR have worked wonders. I found Jed Distler's insightful and informative liner notes most helpful. There’s no doubt in my mind that these recordings offer many rewards
Chopin, Liszt Schumann & encore pieces: HMV recordings 1925-1937
CD 1 [79.25]
1. CHOPIN 12 Études Op 10
13. 12 Études Op 25
25. Prélude in C major Op 28/1; 26. Berceuse in D flat major Op 57
27. Waltz in E flat major Op 18; 28. Waltz in D flat major Op 64/1
29. Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor Op 66
30. MENDELSSOHN/HUTCHESON Scherzo from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
31. SMETANA Polka No 3 in F major from Czech Dances
32. DELIBES/DOHNÁNYI Waltz from ‘Naïla’ (abridged)
CD 2 [80.44]
1. MOZART/BACKHAUS Serenade from ‘Don Giovanni’;
2. SCHUBERT/BACKHAUS Marche militaire in E flat major D733/3
3. SCHUBERT/LISZT Soirée de Vienne No 6 in A major S427/ 6
4. LISZT Waldesrauschen, S145/1; 5. Liebesträume No 3 S541/3
6. Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 in C sharp minor S244/2
7. SCHUMANN/LISZT Widmung S566
8. SCHUMANN Aufschwung No 2 from Fantasiestücke, Op 12; 9. Traumes Wirren No 7 from Fantasiestücke, Op 12
10. Nachtstück in F major Op 23 No 4
11. Fantasie in C major Op 17
14. ALBÉNIZ Triana No 3 from Iberia, Book 2
15. ALBÉNIZ/GODOWSKY Tango Op 165 No 2
16. MOSZKOWSKI Caprice espagnole Op 37
The complete pre-War Beethoven recordings
CD 1 [65.57]
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
1-3. Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op 58 recorded September 1929 & March 1930
4-6. Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major, Op 73 ‘Emperor’ recorded January 1927
Royal Albert Hall Orchestra conducted by Landon Ronald
CD 2 [76.21]
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
1-3. Sonata No 8 in C minor Op 13, ‘Pathétique’ recorded January 1927
4-6. Sonata No 14 in C sharp minor Op 27 No 2, ‘Moonlight’ recorded November 1934
7-9. Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op 81a, ‘Les Adieux’ recorded November 1934
10-11. Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 recorded May 1937
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
12-13. Prelude and Fugue No 1 in C major, BWV846 (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1) recorded May 1937
14-15. Prelude and Fugue No 22 in B flat minor, BWV867 (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1) recorded November 1934
16. Pastorale from Christmas Oratorio BWV248 (arr. Clarence Lucas) recorded November 1934