Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Quintet in A major, ‘Trout’, D667 (1819) [33:10]
Piano Sonata in G major, D894: Minuet (1826) [4:10]
Moment Musical in F minor, D780/3 (1823) rec. 1927 [1:42]
Moment Musical in F minor, D780/3 (1823) rec. 1928 [1:36]
Impromptu in B flat major, D935/3 (1827) [7:14]
Moment Musical in A flat major, D780/6 (1827) [4:44]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16 (1868) [26:13]
Members of the International String Quartet, Claude Hobday (double bass)
New Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli
rec. 1927-36, mono.
Restoration - Mark Obert-Thorn
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC607 [77:09]
Recorded in 1928, Wilhelm Backhaus’ account of Schubert’s
Trout Quintet with Members of the International String Quartet and Claude Hobday on the double-bass, with the release of this Pristine CD is the earliest currently available recording of the work. And well worth hearing it is too. This is a refined presentation of the Allegro vivace first movement. My first impression was of the clarity of Backhaus’ piano and the smiling strings, in particular the grace of the violinist, André Mangeot’s, rising arpeggios as he echoes Backhaus. Mangeot’s sweet and stylish portamento is never predictable and thus seems spontaneous. These are the two key players and the contrast between them is interesting. Backhaus is lucid and assured, whereas Mangeot has an impish touch about him, but everything is done stylishly. The second theme, started by the cello (tr. 1, 1:42) and shared by Mangeot is gently instilled. Backhaus, introducing the much bouncier third theme (2:18), rises to his perkiest in its dotted rhythms, but you’re not going to mistake this for jazz. Even the piano’s flurry of ff semiquavers in the exposition codetta (3:07), while suitably jubilant, is never over-the-top. Indeed, the sound, though sufficiently full, is never what today you’d term ff. The development proceeds in a delightful calm, though the double bass solo after the violin’s and piano’s might have been a little firmer. While the development’s f tutti passage is resolute, that too might have been more passionate. The cello’s gentle but concerned probing at the recap of the second theme is in keeping with the overall sensitivity. There’s just one jarring moment: the thunderous piano chord on the last note fz. Only at this point did I sense this was the promised last of umpteen takes. As Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn points out in his inlay card note, this was Backhaus’ only chamber recording in the 78 era and he was unhappy about the number of takes made ‘before satisfaction was obtained.’
I compare the now second earliest currently available and better known 1935 recording by Artur Schnabel with Members of the Pro Arte Quartet and again Claude Hobday (Warner Classics 9029563376). Timing the first movement at 8:39 to Backhaus’ 8:57, you could say Schnabel et al present more of an Allegro vivace. They bring more rhythmic projection, edge and energy, more bite to the sforzandos, a more prominent viola and thereby a better overall balance of the strings. Their violin, Alphonse Onnou, doesn’t use portamento. Their second theme is more resolute and pressing. Schnabel’s arpeggios at the beginning are creamier than those of Backhaus. Schnabel brings out the strong staccato element of the third theme more, yet I feel Backhaus gives it more, rather zany, character. Schnabel et al are livelier in the exposition codetta and more passionate in the development f tutti passage and the moment of recapitulation (5:58 in Backhaus et al) is more striking. Nevertheless, my preference is for the more laid-back Backhaus et al, their subtler integration of the second theme, the sweeter violin of Mangeot and his judicious portamento. As usual at this period, neither account makes the exposition repeat.
The Andante slow movement from Backhaus et al begins idyllic and smiling with neat but not forced treatment of its fp punctuation of the transitional passage between first and second themes, the latter (tr. 2, 1:24), with viola and cello in duet, has a rich, dusky allure whose somewhat indulgent nature is dispelled by the piano’s third theme (2:02). This recalls the dotted rhythms of the second phrase of the opening theme and here the piano’s darting ascents, launched by demisemiquavers, and staccato semiquaver descents in sextuplets anticipate the portrait of the trout in the fourth movement. These are attractively realized, especially when before long piano and violin exchange descents. A pause, then a recapitulation which seems a cherished reverie.
The opposite of the first movement, Schnabel et al’s approach to the slow one, timing at 7:25, is slower than Backhaus et al’s 6:53. For me this isn’t an advantage. The viola harmonies at the beginning, nicely played, are too prominent and the fp punctuation is heavier. Viola and cello do come into their own in the second theme, giving it great warmth, but arguably this is too luscious. Schnabel and later Onnou, though less so, bring more bounce to the demisemiquavers and semiquavers, so I picture a twitchier trout.
The Presto Scherzo comes fairly crisp from Backhaus et al, though I find the piano at f a little heavy. I like the clarity, detail and gleeful playfulness of the second section, so it’s like a foretaste of the trout in the next movement. A writhing line of three-quaver ascents, then minim and crotchet descents, then floating on four dotted minims, all this exchanged between the piano on one hand and the violin and viola on the other. Sadly, we’re swept away from this swimming display as the second section repeat is cut. So, the Trio, in effect, arrives early after only 59 seconds and then the repeats of both its sections are cut. It begins a suitably delicate contrast, but the start of the second section, marked pp, isn’t notably quieter, which would allow the sudden f passage shortly after to be a firm contrast without resorting to a rather brusque brainstorm to allow the return then to the quiet opening to be more refreshing. As it is, the original mood can’t quite be recaptured, even the accent beginning the violin’s closing solo is too emphatic.
Schnabel et al, timing at 4:06, look to be a lot slower than Backhaus et al’s 2:40, but this is because Schnabel et al make the repeats: without them, they would time at 2:47. This short movement is a more satisfying experience with the repeats and Schnabel et al are in lively, enthusiastic mode, bringing out the staccato markings, so if you picture the trout in this movement, with them it’s in choppier waters. Their greater attention to dynamic contrasts than Backhaus et al results in a less extreme brief f passage in the Trio.
Now we’ve reached the Andantino fourth movement whose theme is from Schubert’s song, Die forelle, here presented by the violin cosily cushioned by the other strings, like looking at the trout on a plate with all the trimmings. Variation 1 (tr. 4, 0:51): enter the piano with the theme and trills, the fish alive and swimming, the strings the rippling water. Variation 2 (1:37): the viola glides with the theme to a lovely, sleek descant from Mangeot. Variation 3 (2:21): a wonderful combination of a scintillating Backhaus as the darting trout and Claude Hobday like a turtle, moving at its heavyweight best. Variation 4 (2:58) is a tutti one in D minor (the song being in D major), in an attempt to introduce discipline, but the violin soon breaks away, as if this trout is determined to have fun rather than search for food and the piano joins it, then tiredness comes over all. In Variation 5 (3:44) the cello has the theme, now reflective, but the Allegretto coda (4:55) brings a second wind and pleasingly light articulation from violin and cello, an innocent celebration of now gentle exploration. As in the previous movement, Backhaus et al make no repeats, but this isn’t a disadvantage here, the parade of variety being enjoyable.
Schnabel et al time the movement at 7:21 against Backhaus et al’s 6:09, but if the latter played the repeats, as Schnabel et al do, their timing would be 7:49, so in terms of tempo Backhaus et al are a little more expansive. This brings rewards in terms of more discernible character, individuality of and interplay between instruments. Schnabel et al’s theme is pleasantly lilting but more like a march. Variation 1 is above all florid, so you don’t get a picture of a fish but rather an elaborately decorated landscape. In Variation 2 the violin accompaniment becomes more important than the viola theme. In Variation 3 Schnabel’s trout thrashes about as if about to be reeled in. In Variation 4 neither the tutti opening nor the later escapism is convincing. In Variation 5 the cello does have some, rather morose character, looking to the future with uncertainty and concern. The coda, however, is skipping and jolly, everyone fresher, but I miss Backhaus et al’s sense of rebirth.
The march which opens Backhaus et al’s Allegro giusto finale, with strings and piano alternating with the melody, is firm and resolute, growing more forceful in its tutti second strain. Come the piano’s frolicking second theme (tr. 5, 1:17) there’s a double perspective. The strings except double-bass have a stylish, expansive phrase over the hijinks on piano and double-bass, while from 1:36 the strings have placid staccato quavers against the piano’s more visionary expanse of rising and falling phrases. However, from 1:56 both have quicker rhythms and the strings here just about hold their own against the powerful, continuous quaver triplets in the piano. Interestingly, in the recap Backhaus plays the second theme quieter (4:32), though the marking remains mf as before, probably to give a feeling of contented winding down before the brief, loud emphatic close. This also results in a better balance between piano and strings in the quicker rhythms’ passage’s recap.
While I found Backhaus et al preferable to Schnabel et al in the trout movement, it’s the other way around in the finale. Timing it at 5:54 to Backhaus et al’s 6:27, Schnabel et al have more zest throughout from their more inviting opening. Schnabel is convivial, maybe a touch effusively so, but the strings’ neat articulation is a joy. The loud passages are less marked than those of Backhaus et al, but thereby avoid heaviness and the balance between piano and strings is consistently excellent.
Next on this Pristine CD, another Schubert piece which Backhaus only recorded once: from Schubert’s G major Piano Sonata, D894, the Minuet, which happens to be in B minor. Backhaus gives us a disciplined first half of the first strain, but carefree second half. This is the familiar conversation and contest between gentleman and lady. In the second strain the man turns on more discipline, reaching ff; the lady rebuffs him quietly but with upper register delight and definitely a twinkle in the eye. This is sufficient excuse for a balmy Trio, molto legato in B major. Its first strain has an ever-present serene bell tolled on ‘soprano’ A sharp, beneath which the tune with mordent elaborations Backhaus lets flow luxuriantly. He catches well the opening out at the beginning of the second strain and the sense of enchanting discovery in the twists of modulation. Key to all this is his getting the Allegro moderato tempo right, so it always flows with a sense of natural order, without urgency. He plays the Minuet da capo without repeats. To be a little picky, his dynamic contrasts in the Minuet could be a little more refined. The Trio couldn’t be better.
I compare another recording from 1928, that by Walter Rehberg (review). He does bring more dynamic contrast, but for me his loud passages are too heavy, though his soft ones are as luminous as with Backhaus. His Trio, however, is less serene: it seems a touch hurried with the mordents getting in the way. Another, admittedly much later, comparison gave me more pleasure: Walter Gieseking live in 1947 (Music & Arts MACD 1070). In contrast to Rehberg, he brings Backhaus’ leanness and clarity, more toughness in the loud passages, though the soft ones are less luminous. What I love is his playfulness, the Minuet more like a scherzo, the gentleman decidedly bumptious. To the Trio he brings filigree delicacy and elegance, as if this is the lady entertaining the gentleman.
Next on this CD come recordings of two of Schubert’s Moments musicaux. First, No. 3 in F minor. An eight-quaver introduction sets the left-hand pulse, and invites, ‘Listen, the dancers are coming.’ Section 1 (tr. 8, 0:03) begins the Allegro moderato dance, jolly, forthright with lots of proud, ornamental flourishes to take in, so all’s repeated. Semiquaver rhythms had appeared in the final phrase and in Section 2 (0:22) these become more frequent, but what holds the attention is the variety of character. This section starts a touch more relaxed, but its second phrase begins with two chords that demand a lively response. A repeat emphasises this principle of contrast. So does Section 3 (0:41), which begins with loud chords, then a tripping but falling away phrase, all repeated, then a comely, mainly soft, suave phrase nevertheless incorporating semiquaver momentum, and then the whole section repeated, in which Backhaus this time plays the falling away phrase as an echo. Section 4 (1:00) is a repeat of Section 1, clarifying the starting point of the dance, while Section 5 (1:09) brings its climax and resolution. The climax comes through tweaking the second phrase of section 1, then changing the key from F minor to F major so the continuation of that phrase is amenable to much repetition as the piece softens and becalms contentedly. Backhaus plays it pretty straight and has no need to do more because he maintains a vibrant pulse throughout.
I have given the timings above from Backhaus’ 1928 account because you’re likely to prefer it over his 1927 for being recorded more closely in the Small Queen’s Hall and therefore more immediate than the 1927, recorded in the Queen’s Hall. Another issue is that the earlier disc is over generous with surface noise. Is it worth having both then? Yes, because for me the 1927 is in some respects preferable: merrier, with a simple, agreeable gaiety in the second and final sections, where in 1928 I feel an iron fist in a velvet glove. You have to set against this the wider dynamic range in 1928 and Backhaus’ playing the repeat of the falling away phrase in section 3 as an echo, admittedly better the second time around, but both times better than no variation in 1927. An appropriate point to turn to Backhaus’ 1955 recording when he recorded all the Moments musicaux (Decca 485 0655 download only). I like this best. Timing at 1:37, he’s marginally slower than his 1:32 in 1927 and 1928, but for me this makes for smoother nuancing of the ends of the sections. He has good spring throughout and a more tempered, less extreme approach to dynamics than in 1928, but sadly he doesn’t play the repeat of section 3’s falling away phrase as an echo. Where this surpasses the other accounts is in its sense of awareness of the overall shape of the piece from start to finish. I haven’t heard Backhaus’ 1910 recording (its reissue on CD no longer available), but my colleague, Jonathan Woolf, found it ‘a little strait laced.’ Backhaus’ fifth and final recording is in ‘The last concert’ in 1969 (Decca 485 0691, download only). This has the same timing, 1:37, as in 1955 and is also without the third section echo. 1969 is rhythmically very crisp, but the phrasing doesn’t flow as much as in 1955 and therefore seems calculated, the piece not coming together as compellingly.
The second Moment Musical is No. 6 in A flat major, a more complex piece with frequent changes of mood and key. Its central section is called a Trio, so the outer ones ought to be named ‘Minuet’ but aren’t, unsurprisingly, as they aren’t anything like your average Minuet. It opens with two heartrending sighs, which the responding phrase immediately attempts to assuage, partly by incorporating another, more composed, sigh. Proposition and response are repeated with harmonic tweaking that adds first to the drama, then to its resolution. Backhaus presents this in a reasonable Allegretto, so the sustained dotted minim sighs onto a crotchet are sufficiently expansive and the angst of the faster rhythms in the second section suitably propelled. That second section (tr. 10, 0:25) begins more clouded, like a conventional development and with the contrast of a more distraught, established highly rhythmic response, though the closing use of low tessitura conciliates. The third section (0:55) begins bleak, with an attempted resolution fractured by a high-rise climax (1:07), well pointed by Backhaus. The fourth section (1:15) returns us to the opening, nicely poised by Backhaus, but the noble grandeur of its first presentation second strain is now replaced by low tessitura murk.
This isn’t altogether gloom as it has a transitional function of leading into the Trio in D flat major (1:49), which also starts in low tessitura yet is warmer and Backhaus, I think rightly, presents it quite skipping. The absence of sustained notes is notable and the spirits are raised by the melody being lifted on repeat into high tessitura, a trick Schubert works again towards the end of the second strain, by which time all is halcyon. But does this make the return of the ‘Minuet’ different and should the performer make it different? Backhaus is brighter and more relaxed this time, his timing is now 1:59 whereas it was 1:49 first time. At the end he sounds like he’s come to peace with his situation, while before the Trio he seems to be peering over an abyss.
How, then, does his 1955 Decca recording compare? It’s no longer a sad opening. Backhaus now takes everything in his stride, with more poised, distinctive and vivid phrasing. That ‘development’ second section has a less romantic, cloudy opening. The third section’s climax I like less, finding it over highlighted, though generally the greater dynamic contrast is better. The Trio is steady, benign, with a more scintillant end and a repeat of its second strain not made in 1936. The return of the ‘Minuet’ has a stately quality, as in 1936 more relaxed than the first time, in this case timing at 2:09 rather than 1:59, the opening an affectionate recollection in sunny iridescence. Again, I prefer the 1955 Backhaus. As with the third Moment, there’s also Backhaus live from the complete set recorded at ‘The last concert’ in 1969, Backhaus now aged 85, where his account remains closer to that of 1955 than 1936. The shaping of phrases is smoother in 1955 than 1969, the third section climax still rather held back in 1969, though now there’s a more searing quality to the fourth section return to the opening. Similarly, the Trio has a more joyful thrust and its second section repeat, also made as in 1955, has a glazed, keen intensity. But I find the very end more neutral and overall prefer the smoother phrasing and calmer foundation of 1955. Not that there’s much difference in the 1969 timing: the ‘Minuet’ return, 2:06 in comparison with 1:55 first time.
The other Schubert item on this CD is the Impromptu in B flat, No. 3 of the D935 set of four (1827). It’s a set of five variations on a theme that started out as the Entr’acte No. 3, also in B flat, of Schubert’s incidental music for Rosamunde (1823). So, on this CD there’s a theme and variations link with the fourth movement of the Trout quintet. Here the theme is to start with transformed from its original, being brighter and simpler to make it more adaptable to variation, but also, as there isn’t the contrast of different instrumental scoring as in the quintet, these variations are more flamboyant and virtuosic. You can argue that the theme here places the melody in its purest, loveliest form, also enabling clearer identification of the ornamentation crafted around it. Backhaus presents it brightly and boldly, with the most elaborate ornamentation given a brusque, improvised flourish (tr. 9, 0:44) which only just works. This is an apt indicator of the excitement to follow.
Variation 1 (1:04) has the theme flowing freely in quite high soprano register in a dotted quaver plus semiquaver cloak. There’s a delicate, musing quality about this combination of theme and register, while the dotted rhythm surround still ensures momentum, Backhaus balances clarity of articulation and the legato also asked for. Variation 2 (1:50) plunges into running semiquavers and then the melody goes stratospheric. Backhaus enjoys the jokey abandon of it all. Variation 3 (2:38) finds the melody in sad times, B flat minor and a dense chordal left-hand which Backhaus makes gloomy without obstructing the forlorn right hand. Indeed, the ascent to coloratura soprano register proves the melody worthy of its tragic backing. Variation 4 (4:25) takes us to the mellow and more fantastic surroundings of G flat major, dreamy, idyllic, shot through with fervent acceptance and more extravagant high tessitura right-hand material, Backhaus conveys all this. In Variation 5 (5:27) we’re back to the home key of B flat major and the delicate flurry of semiquaver skating makes me look forward to Chopin, the activity and mindset easy to grasp, even when the right hand has something forthright to proclaim. Backhaus makes the contrasts crystal clear and then eases leisurely into the coda (6:11) which returns briefly to the opening theme to concentrate on an elaborated transformation of its close, venerated in turn in mezzo, soprano and coloratura registers. Backhaus elaborates the closing two chords, though they are not so marked in the Neue Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke. He puts down the root B flat before completing the penultimate chord and the root and the third before completing the final chord.
Today it’s possible to hear five Backhaus performances of this piece and it's fascinating to hear how he varied. However, I need first to mention the issue of repeats, which didn’t arise in 1936 because there aren’t any. I prefer that to the practice in Backhaus’ other recordings, which is to make repeats selectively and inconsistently, because this distorts the composer’s intended balance. That said, Backhaus usually makes the repeats he does make enhance the drama at that particular point. The score cites repeats of both strains of the presentation of the theme and similarly for every variation except Variation 3 because that has the repeat of the first strain already written in when Schubert sets the right-hand melody an octave higher. Its second strain is, as normally, repeated.
Backhaus’ second account is a 1954 Carnegie Hall recital (Decca 4850690, download only). Here his more fluent presentation of the theme has more conviction and nuanced phrasing, the ‘big ornament’ more flair. Variation 1 is more legato, not so spiky, the span of the theme clearer and there’s more excitement generated in the second strain which is repeated, though the first strain isn’t. Backhaus makes this procedure, which also applies in Variations 2, 4 and 5, work in this performance. Variation 2 is notable for its fiery projection and the repeat seems to be even more electric, filled with the sheer joy of playing it. Variation 3 is made an epic, stormy, tragic scene, the left-hand threatening and gritty, the right starkly luminous. Its second part has an incandescent edge, but inconsistently this is the only second part repeat not made in this performance. Variation 4 is mellow and ecstatic by turns in a realization more convincing than 1936’s. Variation 5 is less bright in 1954, yet has a lovely, more reflective, delicacy. The coda, more than dignity, has warmth and rest, only the final chord differently treated. This performance has curious top and tail features: four chords quietly played and a one note resolution before the theme begins (just a warm-up which would have been better edited out) and the work’s final chord preceded by a trill on the root B flat.
Backhaus’ third account is a 1956 Carnegie Hall recital (Profil Medien PHO7006, download only) which also has the ‘top and tail’ I’ve just mentioned and the same inconsistency regarding repeats. The performances are pretty much the same timing. 1954 being 8:35 and 1956 8:39 against 1936’s 7:05 with no repeats. The 1956 account is mellower than 1954’s, championing melody, though in Variation 1 there’s a good balance of melodic focus and excitement. Variation 2 doesn’t have the electricity of 1954’s, but does have some humour. Variation 3 has a sadder darkness than 1954 with great dynamic contrasts in the second strain providing a more rounded view. The start of Variation 4 is for me too nebulous, nor does its contrast have the ecstasy of 1954. Variation 5 I find similarly less clearly defined than in 1954, while the coda is somewhat somnolently reverential.
From later in 1956 comes a ’studio’ recording made in the Victoria Hall, Geneva (Decca 4850687, download only). The theme is presented with clarity, simplicity and brightness, melody and accompaniment carefully balanced, though the ‘big ornament’ is a bit scrambled. For the first time in Backhaus’ performances, the second strain of the theme is repeated which is consistent with Backhaus’ practice in the variations. In Variation 1 the right and left-hand balance is good, so the offbeat entries in the’ tenor’ part are clear. Rhythmic crispness is achieved with a little less glow in the melody but there’s good impetus. Variation 2 begins quietly animated, then takes flight daintily. Variation 3 could benefit from more dynamic contrast, yet is at first warm in character and the ascent to coloratura soprano register is then more startling. The second half is concentrated. Variation 4, as in the live 1956 account, for me begins rather gooey, but wakes up on reaching upper register. Variation 5 is excellent, with an attractively limpid quality in the right-hand semiquavers, so you picture a dancer rather than think of a cadenza. The coda is so restful you wonder whether you or Backhaus will fall asleep before the end; but don’t, because here for the only time Backhaus plays the end as the score has it. Timing at 9:47, this is Backhaus’ most expansive account.
The fifth and final Backhaus performance is a live one in Bonn from 1959 (review). It’s just 10 seconds shorter than the studio 1956 but, as it doesn’t repeat the second strain of Variation 3, that makes it the equivalent of 23 seconds longer. Here’s a mellow presentation of the theme, a slick ‘big ornament’ and fine flow. Mellow too is the first variation, a smooth balance between left and right-hand, a happy expression of the melody and fervour in its progression. This present experience of joy continues in Variation 2, especially as it takes off in upper register and then in the repeat of the second strain, but there’s vivid light and shade of dynamics too, enhancing the character. Again, in Variation 3 good dynamic contrast brings an epic dimension and then ecstatic upper register. Breadth and tension are maintained in the second strain. The clarity and focus at the beginning of Variation 4 stop it from becoming amorphous and its second strain gleams. Variation 5 is fleet-footed and sparkling, though not as lovely as in the studio 1956. The coda blends warmth and dignity of composure. Before the final chord Backhaus puts down just the root B flat. This account’s combination of éclat and judgement is very persuasive, but I also like the stylishness of 1954 and fluency of the 1956 studio account.
The final work on this Pristine CD features Backhaus as soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the New Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli. On the Pristine inlay card Obert-Thorn points out this is only otherwise available in the new 109-CD Barbirolli ‘Complete Warner Recordings’ set (review). Backhaus had the distinction of being the first pianist not only to record the concerto in 1910, but this was the first concerto ever recorded. Yet, as usual with longer works at that time, it was abridged, in this case to six and a half minutes. So, 1933 was Backhaus’ first and only complete recording. His opening solo is arresting and authoritative, as is his entire performance. Barbirolli brings a good spring to the first theme on the woodwind which Backhaus takes up in a manner which blends relaxation and feeling. The following Animato section (tr. 11, 1:35) finds Backhaus in more fanciful, throwaway mood, suited to what’s just a transition to the piano cantabile (2:00), echoed by dolce solo oboe, to get the mood right for the più tranquillo second theme from the cellos (2:16). This Backhaus’ piano soon ornaments and progresses with longing, and how well the soft but serious chromatic bassoon obbligato accompaniment is caught (2:53). The following tutti from Barbirolli brings a surge of drama with biting fz chords. The resulting clamour eventually dies down and Backhaus repeats the first theme rather chastened and in turn sympathetically treated by Barbirolli. The second theme return now has a sense of reverie, partly because the obbligato accompaniment this time is by horn (7:41). Barbirolli’s following tutti is a stark, heavily accented, climactic version of the first theme which does double duty as a curtain-raiser for Grieg’s piano cadenza. From Backhaus its most exciting part is a legato version of it to thrilling, throbbing demisemiquaver ‘soprano’ and semiquaver ‘bass’ accompaniment till, ultimately, declamations of it alternate with growling hemidemisemiquavers and finally individual chords of it get a demisemiquaver surround. Barbirolli is left to finish the theme, very softly except for its fp apex which he rightly understates. He makes this like an elegy, very respectful and moving. But you don’t know how the work has reached this. Is this what the passing of life is like? The coda presents a human coping reaction: the first theme is now everyday routine, a little sadder yet Backhaus repeats his flamboyant opening solo.
I compare what for me is the most interesting of contemporary recordings, that made in 1937 by Walter Gieseking, his first recording of the concerto, with the Staatskapelle Berlin/Hans Rosbaud (review, I find the performance more satisfactory than my colleague). Timing the first movement at 11:19 against Backhaus/Barbirolli’s 12:04, Gieseking/Rosbaud take a somewhat swifter approach to its Allegro molto moderato though that is accounted for not so much by that opening marking as the treatment of the Animato section. Gieseking/Rosbaud’s first theme is steadier, but well-shaped. Gieseking’s take-up starts and is content to stay relaxed. His Animato section is more cheerily lighter, more flotsam-like, but his following cantabile isn’t enhanced by an audible oboe. Rosbaud’s cellos’ theme lacks the smoothness and warmth of Barbirolli’s, while Gieseking remains less serious than Backhaus, yet also ebullient as the theme builds up, creating a more electric progress to the following tutti. Gieseking’s return to the first theme isn’t chastened like that of Backhaus, but more of a slow smoulder towards the following climax. Rosbaud’s cellos’ theme is dreamier on its second appearance. Rosbaud’s following tutti is a brighter, less tense and stark entry point for the cadenza. Gieseking’s opening section of this is more fluent and attractive, less concentrated than that of Backhaus. His later, softer delivery of the legato version of the first theme and good crescendo is very compelling, if less exciting than that of Backhaus. However, Gieseking’s loud declamations of the theme have more edge. Rosbaud’s strings’ ghostly veiled response to the cadenza takes more account of Grieg’s pp marking, but is less moving than Barbirolli’s elegiac quality. Gieseking/Rosbaud also emphasise more the coda’s Poco più allegro marking, welcoming a normality that’s mundane. Here, then, are pianists with different strengths. Backhaus’ technical prowess is like that of an athlete where Gieseking’s artistry, stocked higher with adrenalin, is like that of a poet. In the cadenza Gieseking, timing at 2:27 only 9 seconds faster, shines more, presenting it more cohesively and compellingly. Backhaus’ opening section is less easy in conveying the four changes of tempo. His declamation of the theme later is more rhetorical than Gieseking’s sheer majesty.
In this CD’s slow movement Barbirolli is at first the star. His muted strings tender, yet flowing, with a modicum of portamento. The cellos take over briefly the six-note repeated phrase (tr. 12, 0:48 to 0:54) so the first violins can sigh above them, a moment of affirmation in a crescendo and sensitive fp (1:09), then the blessing of an individual soul in a cello solo (1:17). Backhaus enters with a meditation bedecked with hemidemisemiquavers, before long marshalling enough fervour to lead a loud tutti positive version of the orchestral theme. Backhaus is for me a little too bullish in this role but his contribution is lucid and does create a contrast to the beauty of the orchestra.
Gieseking/Rosbaud, timing this movement at 5:21 against Backhaus/Barbirolli’s 4:46, offers a slightly slower Adagio with less orchestral character and nuanced playing, rather dreary in comparison with Barbirolli’s feeling, so Gieseking is the star of this account, especially his glinting, high tessitura right-hand hemidemisemiquavers. His leading the loud tutti is robust, yet not quite as heavy as that of Backhaus.
In the finale both Backhaus and Barbirolli equit themselves well. Backhaus starts with a lively dance, the accents of which are of the Norwegian Halling, before the orchestra also enjoy it. A mirage of effects sweeps over your ears and I get the impression the woodwind is straining valiantly to keep up with Backhaus. A second theme (tr. 13, 0:57) comes in the piano’s right hand accented over left-hand arpeggios, not sounding as cantabile as marked but impressive and ends in a positive declaration (1:08). The violins have now caught the dance bug (1:17) to usher in the next big tutti and an imperious statement from Backhaus. Now, the most magical moment in the concerto (2:35), the third theme. This is the brightest, freshest tranquillo flute solo over hair-raising ponticello tremolando violins and violas. Backhaus calms down to take this up and dream within it above gentle string breezes. A short pause and Backhaus is back to the Halling with a touch of abandon. The second theme (5:35) is now marcato and so, this time, has a grim resolve. The continuation of the first theme dance is now less fast, as if gathering for a final push whose frenzy is this movement’s false curtain-raiser for what turns into a jolly scherzando dance with light orchestral accompaniment. A grand version of that might have been expected as an ending. Grieg’s masterstroke is to transform that third, flute theme and what an inspired Andante maestoso Barbirolli gets (7:58) from the wind and string bass over tremolando upper strings and huge arpeggios from Backhaus. They really are both on fire.
Gieseking/Rosbaud, timing the finale at 9:09 against Backhaus/Barbirolli’s 7:58 are arguably closer to the qualifications of its initial marking, Allegro moderato molto e marcato, but Giesking’s first theme is more like a poetic distillation of a dance than the real thing. Rosbaud’s orchestral response is also quite light, but at least nervier. Gieseking’s second theme is very fluent, but the left-hand arpeggios are less clear than those of Backhaus, reducing its substance. However, Gieseking and Rosbaud do create an exciting momentum. The flute third theme has less presence than from Barbirolli, Rosbaud giving strong, quite eerie focus to the tremolando strings. Gieseking finds a pearly tone for his version of the theme and again the backcloth, here sustained notes in a solo cello, is a presence. As with Backhaus, Gieseking’s second theme is more resolute the second time. His scherzando dance is creamy and, while Gieseking and Rosbaud’s third theme apotheosis is warm and beaming, it lacks the electricity of Backhaus and Barbirolli.
With this CD you can admire the consistency of the directness of Backhaus’ approach and clarity of his playing, but also use it for gleaning his ability to hone his interpretation in later recordings.