Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Encore pieces
HMV recordings 1925-1937
APR 6026 [2 CDs: 160:09]
The Complete Pre-war Beethoven Recordings
APR 6027 [2 CDs: 142:18]
There’s never been as much Backhaus available as now. No doubt that’s the case with many musicians but for a studio pioneer who recorded for over 60 years, many of whose commercial recordings have been supplemented by a plethora of live recitals and concerto engagements, the sheer breadth and magnitude of his achievement – its sheer consistency too, mechanically speaking – is astonishing.
APR presents two twofers that amplify the point. The first under discussion is the Beethoven in which he plays two concertos and four sonatas with a trio of Bach readings. Given that he made his first major recital at fifteen in 1899 it is remarkable that he was selected just a decade later to make the first ever (drastically cut) concerto recording, that of the Grieg. In 1927 he made his first electrical concerto recording, the Emperor, with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra directed by another discographic pioneer, and himself an able pianist, Landon Ronald. Backhaus is significantly faster here than he was in coming years with Clemens Krauss. Orchestral details don’t register with great immediacy in this early electric, though the strings slide almost constantly at points, but Backhaus is strong, athletic, and almost leonine. He is unbuttoned in the finale – I sense a side join here at around 4:33 and it sounds to me as if HMV still had bass reinforcements for this recording.
Talking of portamenti it’s fascinating stylistically to hear the bleached white non-vibrato of the London Symphony winds in the G minor concerto, made in 1929-30. Multiple takes were necessary in this reading, again presided over by Ronald, so something was clearly amiss. Again, Backhaus is significantly tighter in the outer movements than he was in 1951 in Vienna with Krauss. Though the piano spectrum is very slightly watery things are otherwise excellent and Backhaus vests the central movement with true philosophic depth of utterance, whilst his springy finale is graced by his own rumbustious cadenza.
The Pathétique was recorded the day after the Emperor and is an example of his unmannered (other than tempo speeding in the finale), direct, largely uneffusive sonata playing. The Moonlight has rather too many punctuation points for comfort but is otherwise eloquently phrased with real brio in the finale. Les Adieux is perhaps the pick of these early sonata readings for its consistency of vision; sometimes in Op.101 he is inclined to go hell-for-leather. This disc ends with a particularly beguiling performance of Clarence Lucas’ arrangement from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
The second twofer broadens the repertoire to include his famous Chopin recordings, Schumann, Liszt and a raft of encore favourites. These discs span the years 1925-37. The two Chopin Etudes sets, the first complete editions to be recorded, were taken down on consecutive days in January 1928. These are profoundly admirable readings though not ones to bring out the poet or lover in Backhaus. He can do contrary motion octaves in his sleep but veers sharply away from the erotically tinged or the fantastic. You’ll search in vain for rich poetry therefore in Op.25/7 – which, to judge from the high take number, seems to have given him unexpected amounts of trouble - as you will in the proficient, straightforward reading of Op.10/6. But it remains true that this is a ground-breaking set, notwithstanding the imminent challenge of Cortot. Like Kempff and his unlikely seeming taste for a minuscule amount of Fauré, so it’s surprising to hear a quintessentially robust German like Backhaus take an interest in Smetana, whose Polka No3 he nevertheless plays with genuine enthusiasm. There are two of the pianist’s transcriptions in the last disc – the Serenade from Don Giovanni and Marche Militaire, both indicative of a superb mechanism as they are extremely tricky. His Liebesträume No.3 is sufficiently ardent, his Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 controlled and if somewhat lacking the ultimate in bravura, still resonantly powerful with virtuoso panache. Then as an example of his Schumann, a 1937 performance of the Fantasie in C major that commands huge respect for its electricity, verve and colouristic intensity. It’s also architectural personalised but makes perfect sense in Backhaus’ performance. It’s one of the most significant documents in the set.
Jed Distler’s documentation for both sets is enlightening and witty and the transfers are in the hands of Andrew Hallifax (Beethoven) and Mark Obert-Thorn (the miscellaneous twofer).
So whilst there has never been as much Backhaus available as now, that is very much to the profit of listeners and collectors alike.
Previous review: Stephen Greenbank
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]
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