Medici Masters – Wilhelm Backhaus

0 of 5 stars

Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Piano Sonata in C, Op.53 (Waldstein)
Études, Opp.10 & 25 [selection]

Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)

Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester [Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra]
Sir Georg Solti [Concerto]

Emperor recorded on 25 June 1956 in the Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne; Sonata on 24 September 1959 in the Beethovenhalle, Bonn; Études on 11 June 1953 in Lugano

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: August 2007
Duration: 73 minutes

The Leipzig-born pianist Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969) is, for vinyl collectors, a seriously expensive proposition. His Decca first-label stereo LPs frequently fetch three-figures and yet the first of these records were made when he was in his mid-seventies. During the LP era he was particularly associated with Beethoven and the Austro-German repertoire. But during 78-rpm times he also recorded shorter pieces by Albéniz, Chabrier, Falla and a considerable amount of Chopin.

Backhaus recorded the ‘Emperor’ commercially three times. The first one, with Landon Ronald and the Queens Hall Orchestra from 1927 (now on Biddulph), was the artist’s favourite recording. This radio broadcast, with its added sense of spontaneity, is valuable. Georg Solti, then in his early forties, was on the podium, a man, who, unlike the soloist, was not noted for hanging around, or going in for big Romantic gestures. This could have led to unwanted tensions. But in the first movement we really do have a performance in the grand tradition. Solti’s attack is superb. If there is a sforzando marking, it is observed; the brass cut through and the woodwinds produce superbly old-fashioned ‘reedy’ tone. Backhaus’s entry, after his initial flourish, is at a slightly different tempo to Solti’s and he slows for the second subject. His control of that vital expressive tool – rubato – is entirely natural; he uses slight pauses, subtle dynamic variation and changes of pace. Rhythmic patterns and melodic lines are often delineated and shaped in a way that is patrician, entirely individual and yet absolutely convincing. Solti and the orchestra follow him exactly, without ever sacrificing their own drive and character. This is a great account.

The start of the slow movement similarly combines forward motion with convincing rhythmic and phrasing license. But the sense of peace and tranquillity, that, for example, Solomon miraculously conveys – how does he make the first two notes so softly glowing? – are only partially realised. At the heart of the movement there is a rapturous series of trills and, in these, something goes seriously wrong. Suddenly the piano line becomes angular, dynamics and tonal variations are reduced, and the sense of individuality combined with control has gone. This unexpected hubris occasionally seemed to afflict Backhaus. It was almost as though he has lost interest.

Fortunately the finale brings the pianist to life again. As in the first movement, the second subject is slower, but the rhythmic emphasis in the first one is constantly changed, within a tempo that is deliberate, without ever sacrificing momentum and power. Once again Solti and the orchestra provide responsive, incisive, support. However the imperious power and flow of the first movement is not entirely recaptured. There is an occasional sense of effort here; the tension and sense of inevitability are not quite so notable. Nevertheless, all in all this is a significant account of the ‘Emperor’, which I would not want to be without, and in sound that belies its age.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the rest of the programme. The ‘Waldstein’ is live and verges on bloody-mindedness! In the first movement, there is no exposition repeat, the tempo is deliberate and the second subject (inevitably) brings a reduction in tempo. Unfortunately there is also stiff fingering and rhythmic rigidity, which borders on ugliness. In the sublime, concise Adagio, Backhaus’s tempo is just about slow enough, but the tone is too harsh and there is insufficient use of the sustaining pedal. Regrettably the pianist also fails to convey any sense of timelessness and spirituality, which seriously unbalances the work. It is difficult to know what to say about the finale. The tempo is once again measured, but as in the slow movement of the ‘Emperor’, there are long passages where Backhaus seems to lose interest and the Presto coda is far too slow. In fairness, the sound quality is worse than in the concerto, being harsh, dry and boxy. But irrespective of the sound, Backhaus’s whole conception is laboured and didactic.

Much the same can be said of the selection of Chopin Études. There is no fluidity, beauty of tone, or subtlety of expression. Numerous pianists, from Cortot to Perahia, have illuminated these masterpieces in ways that completely eluded Backhaus at this stage of his career: these performances, and that of the ‘Waldstein’, do the pianist’s reputation no favours. Again the sound is less than flattering. If you want to hear Backhaus in the complete Études – the first complete recording of Opuses 10 and 25 – then his 1928 version (transferred on Pearl) is the one to go for. His technique was far more fluent then and there is genuine originality of interpretation, rather than heavy-handedness.

But the performance of the ‘Emperor’ is a different matter and this Medici release demands a place on the shelves for that alone.

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