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Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
The Complete 1940s Studio Recordings
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 26 in D major, K537 'Coronation' (1788) [30:34]
Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K331 'Alla Turca' (1781-83) [14:23]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Italian Concerto, BWV971 (1735) [11:45]
Prelude and Fugue Book 2 No. 21, BWV890 (1738) [4:15]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat major, Op. 31 No. 3 'The Hunt' (1802) [17:42]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptu in E flat major, D899 No. 2 (1827) [3:57]
Staatskapelle Berlin/Fritz Zaun
rec. 1941 (Concerto) and 1948, Wolfbach Studio, Zurich
APR 5637 [82:51]

APR is making a structured assault on Backhaus’ extensive discography. They have sifted his HMV recordings from 1925-37 as well as intelligently collating his complete pre-War Beethoven 78s (APR 6026 and 6027 – see review). Now it’s the turn of his 1940s studio discs, starting with his German-made Electrola set of Mozart’s Coronation Concerto and ending with a Zurich-recorded sequence made over three days in March 1948. According to the promotional literature with this disc, it seems that these Zurich sides have only been reissued previously in Japan.

The story of Backhaus’ disenchantment with HMV and the transfer of his allegiance to Decca can be read in Bryan Crimp’s authoritative booklet notes. Backhaus preferred to record in Switzerland, where he’d had a home since the 1930s, but his first attempt in Zurich in 1946 ended in technical failure as the master discs were seemingly damaged in transit and Walter Legge criticised the recorded sound of the piano. Backhaus then rejected an offer to record in London for Legge, as had been standard practice before the War. Perhaps he was uncertain as to his reception in the city given his less-than-noble conduct during the war. In any case he tried again in Zurich in March 1948.

He had always intended to record Bach’s Italian Concerto, and the idea in 1946 had been to include Beethoven’s Op.110 sonata and Schumann’s Symphonic etudes; powerful, hard-hitting repertory. By 1948, only the Italian Concerto remained from this original list. The sound is still, to me, slightly tubby because of the small studio room, but is otherwise very acceptable. The Italian Concerto is erratically driven – sullen at the start with see-sawing rhythm and an unnecessarily protracted end in the first movement, rather better in the Andante but heavy-handed and with capricious voicings in the finale. He plays the B flat major Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book II in better style the Italian Concerto.

The two sonatas are very familiar from his Decca legacy. Mozart’s A major, K331, with its Alla turca finale, fares well; sober-suited perhaps but of a piece with Backhaus’ approach to the sonatas generally. His conception with regard to Beethoven’s sonatas seldom varied in any essential component and in most respects this 1948 reading of Op.31 No.3 differs hardly at all from his May 1954 Decca mono. As he aged rhythms slackened, as a 1969 recital performance of the sonata, preserved on Audite and recorded shortly before his death, shows clearly. His Schubert Impromptu is engaging.

Which brings one to his Coronation concerto recording with Fritz Zaun and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra in c. November 1941. Zaun (1893-1966) was a more than competent accompanist and collectors will know he accompanied on disc Ney, Bustabo, Hoelscher and others. By one of those pleasing coincidences APR has recently released one of the other early recordings of this work, played by Magda Tagliaferro with Reynaldo Hahn conducting in 1931 (APR 7312). To add another feather to their company cap, the label has also restored Wanda Landowska’s account of it, a recording made with Walter Goehr in 1937 (APR 7305). I don’t think I’ve ever heard Conrad Hansen’s early recording of it. Expectations that Backhaus would be outgunned by Tagliaferro, in particular, prove not to be the case. In fact, in this concerto Backhaus is on the kind of form that animated many of his earliest discs when he could charm, provoke and scintillate with the best of them.

He plays this with real zest and a, for the time, forward-looking appreciation of the utility and function of ornaments. His basic tempi are little different from Tagliaferro and Landowska but there is a virtuoso command of passagework and a real sense of identification with the music, topped by the use of his own cadenzas. These are especially noteworthy as he seems to be mining his inner Thalberg in the finale’s florid cadenza where he even slips in a very brief quotation from Beethoven’s First Symphony. This is truly fluent pianism, and he leads into the cadenzas with clarity, playing with late-nineteenth century flair allied to a fully contemporary mechanism. His playing of the slow movement is refined, and he refrains from decorations or fills here. All in all his playing wholly trumps his post-war efforts.

If you collect Backhaus you should certainly add this Mozart concerto performance to your shelves alongside the Brahms First with Boult, the Grieg with Barbirolli, and Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth with Landon Ronald. In many ways it’s the most stylistically revealing of his concerto performances and you’ll need to hear it to appreciate the electricity he could convey when repertoire was congenial and circumstances right.

Jonathan Woolf

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