MOZART: Piano Sonata in C Major; Piano Sonata in F Major; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major “Les Adieux”; Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor “Moonlight”; Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor – Wilhelm Backhaus, p. – Testament

by | Aug 7, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

MOZART: Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 330; Piano Sonata in F Major, K. 332; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a “Les Adieux”; Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”; Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 – Wilhelm Backhaus, p. – Testament SBT 1487, 78:49 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****: 

Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969) returned to England in April 1960 after a four-year hiatus, his repute as a giant among active pianists secure, even to the point of a critic’s comment that his “remarkable degree of accuracy and clarity, its undiminished purposefulness and strength of tone. . .and eloquent simplicity. . .[reveal] the mellow wisdom of advancing years.”  Though more acclaimed for his periodic surveys of Beethoven than for his occasional Mozart, Backhaus communicated “the penetrating vision, poise, and wisdom which can only grow from the experience of a lifetime.” Backhaus recorded this sonata group for the BBC (1960-1961), his technique entirely intact, vibrant, and warmly personal.

Backhaus opens with the C Major Sonata, K. 330 (1784) by Mozart, playing in a style that some might denigrate as the “Dresden China” sensibility, but nevertheless virile and articulate, well accented, the periods rounded, and the Alberti figures absorbed into a higher spirit of galant narrative. His tempo for the outer movements, quite brisk for the Allegro moderato chains of thirty-second notes, keeps the forward motion and elegance of line predominant. The Andante assumes a deeper character in the F Minor mode, the emotional tenor colored by C.P.E. Bach’s influence.  The final Allegretto surges with frothy power. No wonder Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein calls the sonata “one of the most lovable works Mozart ever wrote.” The playing, athletic and supple, does not lack for wit and bright intelligence.

The Sonata in F Major, K. 332 (1783), one of the few Horowitz championed, enjoys a more lyrical – and more dramatic – character. The quick succession of passing affects suggests a kind of operatic cast of personae, lyrical and wistful, but always deeply colored by a depth of feeling in the left hand figuration. Backhaus moves seamlessly through the mercurial affects of the first movement Allegro, his impetus at times quite capable of shattering Dresden China. The Adagio, however, does project that alla musette especially, retain a bel canto, singing power. The Allegro assai presents a virtual witches’ cauldron of bravura effects, all under the mask of Enlightenment security. Wild syncopations and thunderous octaves assault our rapt senses, the more potent when played by a veteran of the style like Backhaus.

The Beethoven group begins with the 1809 Les Adieux Sonata in E-flat Major, whose opening notes may well imitate a distant horn call that literally bear the composer’s indication of “farewell.” Long pregnant pauses from Backhaus mark the progression of the opening Adagio, music that impressed Mahler as well as anyone. The sparkling figurations in the high register contrast with the deep decent of the left hand, the style already moving to the kinds of syntheses Beethoven sought in his “final period” of development. Besides the naturally “improvisatory” Abwesenheit second movement, the music as Backhaus explores it casts a searching procession of strongly personal lights on the interior drama. The passing dissonant harmonies well point to the Second Viennese School, but more to the point are the fragmentary motives seeking to unite into larger sense of direction. A series of false cadences leads to the rather manic opening of the Das Wiedersehen last movement, a weird combination of sonata-form and caprice, welded by a stormy bravura rife with clarion fireworks. Backhaus makes the journey epic, grand, and delightfully unnerving, at once.

Backhaus’ “live” Moonlight Sonata (8 April 1960) has a direct simple majesty about it, in a spirit of romantic improvisation. The playing remains supple and dynamically sensitive, though the piano’s upper register seems overly bright. The middle section of the amused Allegretto movement enjoys a subtle wit. Nervously athletic, the last movement Presto agitato packs a series of intensely layered runs and shattering octaves, quite virile and dramatically decisive.

From the same April concert, Backhaus performs the last of the Beethoven sonatas, the 1822 C Minor, Op. 111. Backhaus certainly takes Beethoven at his word for the Maestoso opening of the first movement, establishing first a potent declamation then speeding directly into the Allegro con brio with a resolute will to etch its contrapuntal lines with vivacious authority. The music becomes quite tumultuous under Backhaus, but its tender episodes at last resolve through Backhaus’ fleet ministrations into a grudging major. Backhaus’ original contribution comes in the form of his relatively quick tempo for the Arietta – closer to Glenn Gould than to Wilhelm Kempffwhich Backhaus takes at a walking pace. Even so, Backhaus engraves a pietist austerity into the melody, which then undergoes four variations of ever-increasing complexity and syncopated ornamentation. The steady pulses only adds to the intricacy of feeling, while the figures meditate, dance, or lament the state of the world. By the time Backhaus leaves us with the bare trills and an evaporated musical context, we seem to have entered some uncanny realm beyond the passing terrors of this earthly plane.

—Gary Lemco