Wilhelm Backhaus = BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 6 in F, Op. 10, No. 2; Sonata No. 12 in A-Flat Major, Op. 26; Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight'”; BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 – Wilhelm Backhaus, p./Amadeus String Q. – Meloclassic MC 1007, 79:24 [www.meloclassic.com] ****:
Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969), having won the Rubinstein Competition in 1905, attained status as a world-class virtuoso in the Austro-German tradition, a repute he maintained throughout his career, although the popular mind consistently associated him solely with the music of Beethoven. MeloClassic resurrects two distinct concerts from France, including three Beethoven sonatas from 19 May 1953 Paris and the 14 August 1953 concert from Menton, in which Backhaus joins the Amadeus Quartet: Norbert Brainin (1st violin); Siegmund Nissel (2nd violin); Peter Schidlof (viola); Martin Lovett (cello) – in the F Minor Quintet of Johannes Brahms.
Power and suppleness define the F Major Sonata, Op. 10, No. 2, in which each of Backhaus’ landings clearly establishes a distinct musical period. If the rendition does not breathe “poetry,” it certainly communicates an aristocratic elegance of expression. The Allegretto, too, enjoys an athletic, lithe propulsion touched by wit and tender sentiment. Backhaus’ Finale: Presto bounces and frolics most deliciously, a frivolous canon in the manner of Haydn with its own capacities for explosive fury. Backhaus always claimed that his extraordinary wrist action came from his love of rowing boats.
The A-flat Sonata No. 12 “Funeral March” Sonata often elicits from scholars the distinction of having initiated Beethoven’s “Middle Period” of development. Backhaus does smear the opening movement Andante con variazioni with a false chord or two, but then his secure technique returns in dramatically convincing clarity. The Scherzo retains some of its galant origins as it gains momentum and irresistible power. The Trio section grants us a moment of muscular repose. The “heroic” Funeral March movement conveys its own austere dignity, amplified by Backhaus’ resonant fortes and swirling trill. Light and fluent figures illuminate the final Allegro’s bravura, most disarming after the profundities prior.
A pleasure to bask in the thoughtful sonorities of the Backhaus “Moonlight” Sonata, whose opening Andante sostenuto does not seek the transcendent morass into which some others descend. Here, the pulsation of the arpeggiated figure generates its own logos, a fluidly meditative world unto itself. Another moment of galant ease and suave finesse for the Allegretto, a brief respite before the electric storm of the Presto agitato, which has the piano keys’ sailing out of the body of Backhaus’ chosen instrument: sturm und drang with a pondered vengeance!
To hear Backhaus in chamber music repertory certainly remains a rare event; and here in St. Michel Church, Menton, we have the pianist’s revered Brahms in concert with the veteran Amadeus Quartet. The microphone placement for the F Minor Quintet seems lackluster throughout, but the energy of realization, the warm legato in the upper strings’ announcement of the opening theme, and the innate, conscientious balance of forces remains impressive. The perpetual juxtaposition of duple and triple meters rings throughout the liquid first movement in endless permutations. When Backhaus wishes to overpower the subsidiary string tissue, he can at will; but the ineluctable tragic mood, set in the first eight bars, moves without dynamic mishap. Martin Lovett’s cello often sings out plaintively in the midst of the emotional upheavals, of which the coda merely places the resounding period.
The Andante could scarcely offer a more contrasting persona, its lied-form only occasionally dropping into the minor mode. Backhaus seems totally at ease in this placid atmosphere, easily reminiscent of Schubert’s song “Pause.” The obsessive syncope, two versus three, recurs in manic form for the Scherzo, one of those Bismarckian marches tailor-made for the Backhaus aggression. The Amadeus add their own zesty mania for the fierce fugatos that pepper this titanic upheaval that occasionally nods to Schumann and Beethoven. The Finale borrows “dissonant” elements from Mozart and from Beethoven at once, with the serpentine theme’s exploiting almost every note of the chromatic scale; then a three-note cell from the cello announces the dark rondo theme that quite explodes in virile harmony among the principals. Peter Schidlof’s viola makes its presence felt, vibrant against the Backhaus punctuations. The working-out of the forces moves ineluctably toward the cascading, extended coda, which wants to develop its own nexus, until the opening theme urges itself upward and then disintegrates in a blaze of glory led by Backhaus’ wild, martial syncopations.