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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]
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
International String Quartet; Claude Hobday (double bass)
New Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli
rec. 1927-36, mono.

I’m a huge admirer of Pristine Audio and the splendid work carried out by Andrew Rose and team. Then there are the transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn whose work I’ve admired since his take on the Toscanini recordings emerged more than thirty years ago.

This is an apologetic preamble to the most disappointing CD that I’ve heard from Pristine, one of my favourite labels. In no wise am I casting blame towards Pristine or the audio restorations by Mr Obert-Thorn. He has certainly done his utmost on material, which is, after all, about ninety years old.

In his extensive review Michael Greenhalgh goes into considerable detail about the recordings and compares Backhaus’s “Trout Quintet” with the supreme version by Artur Schnabel and The Pro Arte Quartet. The two versions share the double bassist Claude Hobday, born in Faversham, Kent in 1874 and who died in Surbiton, aged 80 in 1954. It was Jonathan Woolf who is far more knowledgeable about older recordings, who advised me, that this Hobday was part of a very significant musical family.

I have loved the Schnabel/Pro Arte for many years and have the collected Schubert in a budget Warners box, which I regard as one of my treasured sets. Reviewing an earlier compilation on Music and Arts, which I haven’t heard, Jonathan said of their “Trout” that “these sides have passed into the lexicon of recorded history so only a few words will be necessary from me.” He disagreed with the liner-notes by Harris Goldsmith whose dismissive jibe referred to the Pro Arte’s “simpering” portamenti. His great quote “One man’s simper is another man’s affectation” is classic. The Schnabel/Pro Arte’s Haydn quartets I recommend to anyone remotely interested in great chamber playing and what a shame that the economics of the 1930s meant little Beethoven was recorded. I totally agree with “light-hearted and airily textured with a leisurely Scherzo” which is how Jonathan characterises it. I enjoy also the “Andantino’s scoops and trills that are crisper than crisp and a delight”. Sadly, Backhaus and team, in much murkier sound by comparison seem po-faced and lacking in joy. I’ve always found Backhaus a difficult pianist to warm to. I have his complete Decca box and enjoy his second Beethoven piano sonata cycle and his Brahms Second Piano Concerto and Mozart 27 with the VPO under Karl Böhm. Schubert was not his forte and even in the sublime shorter pieces, I’m searching for some vestige of spring in the step; to my ears, it’s lacking. That said, I’m sure many will disagree and that’s the fun of comparing recordings. After my initial hearing, I delayed playing this CD again, in case I felt differently but sadly not.

My go-to recording of the magnificent Grieg Concerto is Dinu Lipatti, whose playing, I’ve loved for over fifty years. The Grieg is in a much prized Icon box along with most recordings in his tragically short career (he died age 33). Jonathan Woolf reviewed this EMI (now Warners) 7 CD set, back in 2009 and I consider it totally essential to all lovers of music, of any genre.

Can I just leave it, that I didn’t enjoy Backhaus in this, for him, untypical work: too dour and, I thought, some fluffs. Barbirolli does his best. He was a fine Grieg conductor and I’ve played his “Peer Gynt”, in the superbly re-mastered box, which had a so informative and stimulating review by Tully Potter, and sits proudly on my shelves. Even so, he can’t salvage this.

The Grieg Piano Concerto appears on CD 71 in Sir John Barbirolli (conductor) “The Complete Warner Recordings” (review).

In his conclusion to an excellent review of Backhaus’ second Beethoven Sonata cycle (apart from the 1952 “Hammerklavier”, not re-recorded later), Ian Bailey wrote “Backhaus is not a panacea in these works, but I wouldn’t want to be without him. Like life he is from time to time frustrating, perplexing, indifferent … and yet … equally rewarding, stimulating and difficult to erase from the memory.”

I’m certainly pleased that I heard this disc and would recommend it to all lovers of this fine pianist who played in front of Brahms as a child. I will turn to him for Beethoven and Mozart but not for Schubert and Grieg.

David R Dunsmore

Previous review: Michael Greenhalgh

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