Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58 (recorded 1929-30)
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor) (1927)
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15 (1932)
Etudes, Op.10 (1928)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16 (1933)
Quintet for piano and strings in A, D667 (Trout) (1928)
Fantasie in C, Op.17 (1937)
Plus numerous short pieces by Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov et al (recorded 1908-1948)
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano) with various artists
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: May 2002
CD No: ANDANTE 2996-2999 (4 CDs)
These are recordings of great interest and significance. In using the latest transfer technology, Andante has provided outstanding piano sound. There is some attempt to remove surface noise but that process stops before the sound is compromised. This set is also impeccably presented – not only with attractive pictures and graphics, but also with scholarly introductions and essays. Every effort is made to present an overview of Backhaus and to be palatable. It is evident that thought has gone into making this specialist-interest issue welcome to the more general collector.
Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969) enjoyed a long career. His later recordings, including the much-admired Decca of Brahms’s Second Concerto (VPO/Karl Böhm), report of course the work of an older musician, one who by then was concentrating on essentials. His early reputation was for something altogether more charismatic and demonstrative without though sacrificing musical focus.
It is easy to have a partial view of an artist if one is not prepared to listen to ’old’ recordings. With Backhaus, and only knowing his later work, one would think of him as a doyen of the German repertoire, and suggest his performances, perhaps due to over-familiarity with his chosen repertoire and advancing years, as being colourless.
Not so! Backhaus was in his younger days an athlete of the piano, and also a champion of Romantic music. It is interesting to learn that the complete Chopin Etudes, Schumann’s Fantasie and the Brahms First Concerto received their first recordings by Backhaus – most of these performances are included in this collection. Backhaus’s technical excellence makes the Chopin and concerto performances particularly secure and satisfying. Of the concerto collaborations, the two Beethoven concertos with Sir Landon Ronald suffer rather distant orchestral support, yet Backhaus is always strong, shapely and poised. Boult conducts the Brahms D minor, Barbirolli the Grieg; both are notable partnerships and both renditions are engrossing – plenty of fire in Brahms, much lyrical warmth for Grieg.
In Schubert’s ’Trout’ quintet (with three-quarters of the International String Quartet and double bassist Charles Hobday), the difficulty of transferring string-sound makes this recording harder to listen to. However, both in the ’Theme and Variation’ movement, and in Schumann’s Fantasie that occupies the same disc, the playing is especially affectionate as well as assured – accommodating and imaginative in Schubert (as in a number of the composer’s short pieces), heroic and sensitive in Schumann.
It’s been a particular pleasure to enjoy Backhaus revelling in showpiece numbers as well as hearing his intellectual grasp of the ’bigger’ works in prime technical condition. His demonstration is always musical and the Olympian quality of Backhaus’s playing that emerges self-evidently from these recordings makes clear why Pollini has referred to Backhaus as being a major influence on him.