Wilhelm Backhaus: HMV Recordings, 1925-1937 = PIano Works by CHOPIN, SMETANA, MENDELSSOHN, DELIBES, MENDELSSOHN, SMETANA, SCHUBERT, LISZT, SCHUMANN, ALBENIZ, MOSZKOWSKI [complete list below] – APR 6026 (2 CDs) 79:25; 80:44 (10/26/18) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969) enjoyed an active career as a keyboard virtuoso whose recorded legacy spans some sixty years, having begun in 1908.  Producer and Recording Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn assembles the Backhaus electrical recordings that address his taste for music in the Romantic tradition, with the exception of the Brahms he recorded 1926-1936 (available on Music & Arts CD-1132).  Despite his “Germanic” training by Alois Reckendorf and Eugen D’Albert, Backhaus cultivated an astonishing, fleet technique that bears more of the Italian strain in musical taste, a penchant for fast, liquid architecture in which runs, grace notes, leaps, and bold spans become absorbed into one, seamless line.  Yet Backhaus remained shy and conservative by nature, demure, and wont to avoid sensationalism. A work like Liszt’s Waldesrauschen (rec. 1925) reveals a startling, scintillating dexterity, girded by a studied control of accent and dynamics. The whirling motion of the piece never becomes mechanical or lax in the singing line. That same, glistening brio marks his Etude in F Major, Op. 10, No. 8 by Chopin (rec. 1928). We might look to Vladimir Horowitz as a rival in the equally dervish piece, Traumes-wirren from Schumann’s Fantasiestuecke (rec. 1927), since both embody propulsion tempered by  the poetic temperament. For an immediate contrast in tone and mood, consider the Backhaus realization of Schumann’s Nachtstueck, Op. 23, No. 4 (rec. 1937), for security and total comfort in the romantic style.  Allowing his progressive line a broad degree of relaxation and sonorous depth, Backhaus might be mistook for a much younger colleague, Emil Gilels.

A supple and athletic grace informs the Backhaus set of Chopin Etudes, Op. 10 (rec. 4-5 January 1928), of which the first two make a wonderful diptych, with the A minor’s flexible pulse commanded by an obsessive ostinato. The E Major enjoys personal warmth and rhythmic flux both intimately subtle and sensuous.  A tempestuous explosion sets off the C-sharp minor Etude, now a hurtling march beset by a mortal storm. Equally hectic and mischievous, the G-flat Major cavorts and sings. A misty, anxious sensuality marks the obsessive No. 6 in E-flat minor, hinting at once of Debussy and Scriabin.  The syncopes of thirds and fifths that plague the C Major, Op. 10, No. 7 bother Backhaus’ right hand, breezy touch not at all. A lightening detachment informs the F minor Etude, fervent and passionate as it is in a “Lisztian” style. Double notes seem to rain liquid fire in the A-flat Major, a haunting, haunted rendition. Except for uncanny Josef Lhevinne, the Backhaus Etude in E-flat Major makes the most sober poetry of this demonic study in spread chords that want be sound legato. Whatever “revolutions” abound in the C minor, Op. 10, No. 12, Backhaus has them drive in waves of digital power whose few moments of repose ache for a better world.

The Op. 25 set opens with a lovely A-flat Etude that rivals that of Louis Kentner for evocative suppleness. The disciplined workmanship of both the F minor and F Major demands respect for poise and naturalness of line, respectively.  The studied syncopes of the A minor will grant Backhaus equal access to the knotty Polka No. 3 of Bedrich Smetana (5 January 1928). The glowing arpeggios of the Chopin E minor Etude will call listeners back for repeated hearings. A discernible glee invests the murderous cross rhythms in the G-sharp minor Etude, whose fluidity seems to increase, much to our awe. The C-sharp minor always presents us a ballade-nocturne whose bass line threatens either to enfold or to disabuse us of our romance.  Backhaus provides the piece with solemn breadth. The numbers 8 in F Major and nine in F minor rival Hofmann for sheer bravura. The last three etudes of Op .25 proclaim a triptych of a potent, emotional drama that suggests they form a compressed sonata all their own. Each of them receives a staggering sense of brilliant technique and expressive scope from Backhaus, culminating in the C Minor “ocean” frenzy that no one seems to play fast enough, though Backhaus pushes the waves with Herculean splendor.

Wilhelm Backhaus

Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969), German pianist, 1907.

The major contribution for many collectors lies in the Schumann offerings, opening with a fluid, transparent version of Widmung in Liszt’s arrangement (rec. 5 January 1928), rife with stylistic rhetoric and dazzling flourishes, making us wish we had the Romance in F to accompany this passionate account.  The Aufschwung from Op. 12 ( 15 October 1928) proves nervously aggressive, its percussion quite reminiscent of Rudolf Serkin.  The Nachtstueck No. 4 in F Major (14 May 1937), the martial, slow conclusion to the suite of pieces, Op. 23, projects a solemn dignity that avoids dragging. The power and extraordinary achievement of the Backhaus Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17 (13 May 1937)  comes to us in full regalia of color and control, the recording having set the standard—at least for me—well into the 1950s, when Robert Casadesus impressed me with his reading for CBS. Backhaus miraculously adjusts his weight distribution in the hands while the music moves between whimsical musing and dramatic narrative. The transitions often gain an imperious momentum, then suddenly pull back under a resounding trill or deep bass tone. The stretti—which often gallop in episodic clusters—exhibit startling force without having sacrificed the arched, lyrically exalted, musical line.  The second movement Maessig: Durchaus energisch combines the hammer and the whiplash in rare mania—after the middle movement of Beethoven’s Op. 101—a breathless combination that somehow maintains its shape.  The last movement—with its homage to the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata—allows the poet in Backhaus to relish those “hidden” harmonies that Schumann wished to summon from Schlegel. A graceful wistfulness inhabits virtually every bar, while the forward motion both carries us and dissolves beneath us, at once.

Disc 2 concludes with a trilogy of “Iberian” sentiment, in the form of two pieces of Albeniz and the Moszkowski Caprice espagnole (5 January 1928), an explosively flashy, virtuoso vehicle also favored by Josef Hofmann.  The Albeniz Triana (5 January 1928) and Tango in D Major (18 June 1928) glitter in their respective dance modes. The stylistic acuity, suave grace, and natural poise could convince us that young Arrau is at the keyboard.  No less compelling on Disc 2 has been the pianist’s own arrangement of the Serenade from Don Giovanni (5 January 1928), with its especial layering. The fluent ease of Schubert’s Soiree de Vienne No. 6 in A Major (27 January 1936) will bear comparison with Horowitz for intimate, stylistic comfort. The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (28 January 1927), like the Backhaus Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu (30 October 1933) on Disc 1, compels our attention more for its apparent restraint than for bravura excesses. No one who listens will doubt the strength or dynamic flexibility of the Backhaus trill or the vehemence of his accelerandos. The lyric, gypsy color element in Liszt enjoys a crisp transparency, just as the famed melody of the Chopin sings without mannerism.

Just a few words about the Chopin “occasional” pieces and selected offerings: the C Major Prelude (30 October 1933) overwhelms with perhaps too much urgency.  The D-flat Berceuse (15 October 1928) emerges in quickly poised, liquid colors quite anticipatory of the esteemed version by Solomon a few years later. The Grand Valse in E-flat, Op. 18 (4 January 1928) has a “sturdy” girth in the midst of its lilting phrases, all rather mercurial.  The “Minute” Waltz in D-flat Major (2 November 1925) wants to try out at NASCAR for sheer speed records.  Backhaus competes with Moiseiwitsch for primacy of place in the Mendelssohn Scherzo (28 January 1927).  Even in its abridged format, the Delibes Naila Waltz (2 November 1925) from Backhaus demonstrates the limpid muscularity combined with poetic finesse in the pianist’s intimidating technical arsenal.

What we have enjoyed for the better part of 3 hours has been the disciplined, inspired efforts of an honest, intelligent virtuoso of the highest order. The resounding quality of the documents makes any issue of age irrelevant to the musical experience.

—Gary Lemco

Track Listing:
CHOPIN: 12 Etudes, Op. 10; 12 Etudes, Op. 25; Prelude in C Major; Berceuse in D-flat Major; Waltz No. 1 in E-flat Major; Waltz in D-flat Major; Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor;
MENDELSSOHN (arr. Hutcheson): Scherzo from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”;
SMETANA: Polka No. 3 in F Major;
DELIBES (arr. Dohnanyi): Waltz from Naila;
MOZART (arr. Backhaus): Serenade from “Don Giovanni”;
SCHUBERT (arr. Backhaus): Marche militaire No. 3 in E-flat Major;
SCHUBERT (arr. Liszt): Soiree de Vienne No. 6 in A Major;
LISZT: Waldesrauschen; Liebestraume No. 3; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor;
SCHUMANN (arr. Liszt): Widmung; Aufschwung; Traumes-wirren; Nachtstueck in F Major; Fantasia in C Major;
ALBENIZ: Triana; Tango in D;
MOSZKOWSKI: Caprice espagnole