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Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
The Complete 1940s Studio Recordings
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Italian Concerto, BWV971 [11:50]
Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2, No.21 in B flat major, BWV890 [4:15]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata no.18 in E flat major, Op.31 No.3 'The Hunt' [17:45]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 26 in D major,K537 'Coronation' [30:33]*
Piano Sonata No.11 in A major, K331 [14:23]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptus, Op.90 D899, No.2 in E flat major [3:57]
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Fritz Zaun*
rec. 1941-1948
APR 5637 [82:50]

Wilhelm Backhaus’ recording career lasted 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 launched 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 nature. He embraced the medium of recording early on and became something of a pioneer in the field. His first forays into the business were in September 1908. Whereas his later career concentrated 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.

Back in 2018 I reviewed APR’s previous Backhaus releases, which focused on the recordings he made for The Gramophone Company’s HMV catalogue; these date from the 1920s and 1930s. APR now turns the spotlight on to the lesser known recordings from the 1940s, until now never really promulgated. All are solo items with the exception of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 ‘Coronation’.

The Concerto is as good a place as any to begin as it’s the earliest of the recordings, set down around November 1941 by Electrola, the German arm of the Gramophone Company. It was timed to be released to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. The orchestra is that of the Berlin State Opera, under the direction of Fritz Zaun. Not the most popular of Mozart’s piano concertos, it was popularized in the 78 era by the likes of Landowska, Tagliaferro and Conrad Hanson. The outer movements adopt brisk and lively tempi, and the orchestra remains alert and responsive throughout. The slow movement has a gentil refinement. Backhaus’ exquisite, luminous tone and poetic phrasing cast a magical spell. He employs his own cadenzas.

The remaining solo items were recorded in the Wolfbach Studio in Zurich between 15 and 17 March 1948. Here they’re issued in their entirety for the first time. I have some misgivings about Bach’s Italian Concerto. In the opening movement Backhaus has the habit of employing motivated rits at cadences, and in the slow movement he arbitrarily ups the tempo on a couple of occasions. The Prelude No.21 from the WTC Book 2 is taken much brisker than is the norm today, a tempo more aligned to Glenn Gould’s than to, say, András Schiff or Angela Hewitt. The Fugue is marked by precision, with each contrapuntal line clearly defined.

There’s a pervasive sense of radiant charm in Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A major, K331, with Backhaus enjoying every minute of it. The work concludes with a rhythmically charged Rondo alla turca finale. The highlight of the disc for me is a superb, uplifting account of Beethoven’s Op. 31 No. 3. There’s ample jocularity, especially in the sprightly Scherzo. The finale is a true Presto con fuoco, here energized and performed with verve, vim and vigour. The disc ends with a delightful rendition of Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat, D899, No. 2.

At almost 83 minutes, this is generously timed CD. Transfers bespeak sedulous dedication on the part of Andrew Hallifax and Bryan Crimp, and do full justice to this distinguished collection. Jed Distler and Bryan Crimp have provided the excellent accompanying liner notes.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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