Backhaus Plays: Schubert, Trout Quintet; Grieg Piano Concert – Pristine Audio

by | Sep 30, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

SCHUBERT: Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 “Trout”; Menuetto from Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894; Moment musical in F Minor, D. 780, No. 3 (two versions); Moment musical in A-flat Major, D. 780, No. 6; Impromptu in B-flat Major, D. 935; GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16 – Wilhelm Backhaus, piano/ Members of the International String Quartet/ New Symphony Orchestra/ John Barbirolli – Pristine Audio PASC 607, 77:09 [] *****:  

Amateur cellist and mine magnate, and patron of the arts, Sylvester Paumgartner had become enamored of Franz Schubert’s lied, “Die Forelle,” so Schubert in 1819 – rather spontaneously – created his unusual Piano Quintet for Paumgartner and a selected group of enthusiasts. Schubert included the bass fiddle as part of the ensemble, in place of the second violin, perhaps having a similar work by Johann Hummel in mind as model, the bass serving to relieve the cello of its obligatory role in the anchorage of the bottom line of a work rife with melodies. Schubert casts his work in five movements, with the fourth’s serving for the “Trout” theme and variations, the composer having omitted the last verse of the original poem for his song, which makes some dreary moral analogies to the demise of the fish and young women’s loss of innocence.

In his restoration of the early electrical recordings of German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969), engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has revived the Backhaus Schubert legacy, 1927-1936, along with his 1933 collaboration with John Barbirolli in the Greig Piano Concerto.  The breezy Trout Quintet – with members of the International String Quartet: Andre Mangeot, violin; Frank Howard, viola; Herbert Withers, cello; Claude Hobday, double bass – dates from 7 March and 18 June 1928 and reveals Backhaus in fleet condition and elated, elastic spirit.  The work itself bathes in a lyrical aura of freedom and collegiality, doubtless a product of the composer’s relative freedom the drudgery of a thankless teaching job and the limits imposed by daily life in Vienna. The sense of freedom embodies Schubert’s rejection much of standard sonata-form practice, especially in the course of development sections; instead, he relies on the sheer momentum of each song to carry the music forward, as in the opening movement’s sudden shifts between A Major and F Major, as though the modulation were entirely natural.  Schubert himself celebrated the idea that his keyboard assumed a singing character rather than that of a percussive instrument:  “Several people have assured me that my fingers had transformed the keys into singing voices. If that is really true then I am delighted, since I cannot abide the damnable thumping that is peculiar to even the most distinguished pianists.”

Portrait of Fanz Schubert

Franz Schubert,
by Josef Kupelwieser

There exists no trace of “damnable thumping” in this version of the Piano Quintet: the balance of instrumental sonorities quite flows without any sense of false or inflated emotional emphasis.  Backhaus hustles through the faster sections of the variations in movement four, and the participation of Claude Hobday (1872-1954) on the double bass guarantees a seasoned professional who participated in a number of recorded documents of this ingratiating work.  Backhaus, for the most part, eschews any sense of virtuosity for its own sake. His playing proves thoughtful, gently rendered, with great care in the articulation of figures, especially riveting in the Finale, Allegro giusto.   For me, the whole Quintet begins and ends too soon, and I must return to the performance again for repeated and new gratifications.

The more potent side of the Backhaus style comes forth in the percussive, stalwart Scherzo from the so-called Fantasy-Sonata in G Major (18 June 1928), but whose trio section enjoys a flavored, music-box sonority.  Obert-Thorn gives us the two renditions of the popular F Minor Moment musical in chronological order: the 28 January 1927 version has a hearty propulsion, but the sonic effect suffers heavy surface noise. The 4 January 1928 emerges in quick, clear staccatos, buoyant and rhythmically elastic. From the same session we have the B-flat Impromptu, a simple, folk lyric in variations that Backhaus realizes as an ongoing duet. His measured legato proves as mesmerizing as his glittering dotted notes and slick runs.  The last of the six Moments musicaux, this dirge in A-flat Major (rec. 27 January 1936), projects the spiritual uncertainty of Schubert’s last years of creativity, when the mortal coil had manifested its ineluctable grip on his frail constitution. The balance of grim fate and grudging resignation – between modal aspects of F and E Major and its sad trio in D-flat – makes this Backhaus moment a living treasure.

Portrait of Edvard Grieg

Edvard Grieg

The Grieg Concerto in A Minor – possibly the most perfect all such compositions in the genre – had been set to shellacs as early as 1909 by Backhaus, in a severely truncated form. For this 23 October 1933 collaboration Backhaus has the steady, reliable John Barbirolli at the helm of the New Symphony Orchestra. Obert-Thorn pronounces the recording as possessing “idiomatic naturalness,” and the figures flow seamlessly, as evidenced in the solo flute, winds, and horn against the Backhaus arpeggios in movement one. Barbirolli, himself a cellist, elicits some loving tones from his low strings. Lyricism tinted with a sense of mystery informs the Allegro molto moderato, with a cadenza solidly wrought in graduated, breathed phrases and potent dynamics. The amazing, elusive Adagio in D-flat Major, by Backhaus in relatively quick tempo, intimates at the regional, folk colors that flavor and emboss the last movement. The dialogue between French horn and the piano’s light trills enjoys a crisp luster.  The highly rhythmic flavor of the last movement, most in 2/4 and ending ¾, thrusts us deeply into the Norwegian ethos, with Backhaus in bravura spirits supported by blazing trumpet work. The middle section, announced by the solo flute, becomes liquid nostalgia on all counts. The resolute progression to the concluding A Major proves scintillating, martial, and feverishly heroic: a proud document for all principals.

–Gary Lemco 

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