Wilhelm Backhaus: The Complete pre-War Beethoven recordings – Wilhelm Backhaus, piano – APR 

by | Nov 5, 2018 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Wilhelm Backhaus: The Complete pre-War Beethoven recordings = BEETHOVEN: Various sonatas, Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5, and works by Bach.  Complete listing below – Wilhelm Backhaus, piano/ London Symphony Orchestra / Royal Albert Hall Orchestra / Landon Ronald – APR 6027 (2 CDs) 65:57; 76:21 (10/26/18) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

    “I place Beethoven before all others. He transcends them all in dynamic power and his titanic spirit and intensity of thought seem to suggest a god or superman. His music satisfies my nature, in joy or sorrow, like no other.”

—Wilhelm Backhaus

The Beethoven works collected here complement the APR set of Romantic pieces assembled and edited by Mark-Obert Thorn (APR 6026). The first disc, embracing the Piano Concertos 4 (25 September 1929 and 12-13 March 1930) and 5 (27 January 1927), had previous issue on the Biddulph label in 1998 (LHW 037), and they display a fleet, often incredibly lithe and athletic virtuoso, especially in the respective cadenzas in the outer movements of the G Major Concerto. The “Emperor” Concerto, taken for posterity in one recording session, possesses its own, driven momentum, tends to downplay the woodwinds’ contribution in the first movement, a pity. Still, the thoughtfulness of phrase and application of touches, trills, and roulades never ceases to astound those who attend to the subtleties of the Backhaus style. The explosive transitions alone compel our admiration, if not awe. The music-box chords late in rhe first movement glisten and glitter with a silken panache to make Michelangeli jealous. The exaggerated slides in the Royal Albert Hall strings notwithstanding, the second movement Adagio un poco mosso moves—rather quickly—with refined poetry. The Rondo: Allegro sings as well as cavorts in large, expansive periods. If the tendency in Backhaus celebrates German Romanticism rather than some “echt” and “pure” notion of Beethoven, the results remain both passionate and dramatic.

Portrait Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven,
by Hornemann

The Backhaus Beethoven sonatas recorded1927-1937, as well as the Bach pieces that served as filler for the shellac sets on HMV, have been transferred and remastered by Andrew Hallifax. The Pathetique Sonata (28 January 1927) resonates with thoughtful authority, its first movement a dramatic confrontation of the composer’s pain, in chromatics, and his will, expressed diatonically. The lyrical Adagio cantabile sings according to Backhaus’ own lights.  The Rondo: Allegro adjusts the flux while maintaining its surface speed. The moments of counterpoint and stretto achieve a streamlined, three-hand effect. The extended coda well indicates the virile power that Backhaus commands. The Moonlight Sonata (6 and 8 November 1934) reveals the ‘romantic’ strain in the Backhaus approach, but the Adagio sostenuto does not dawdle not cloy in its suave, intimate progression. The Allegretto accepts a slight ritard that the modern ear may find mannered. Typical of the younger Backhaus, his tempos tend to be quick. The strength and agility in the pianist’s rendering of the Presto agitato convince us that bravura could be his in a heartbeat.  The suddenness of the sfzorzati rival anything in Serkin, but perhaps less percussive. The Les Adieux Sonata (6 and 8 November 1934) may open somewhat “preciously,” but once the “farewell” gestures recede, the subsequent Allegro reveals an aerial buoyancy quite exhilarated, especially in his acceleration in double notes.  The “Farewell” motif exerts itself in the minor for the Andante espressivo, and Backhaus makes his diminished 7th chords jar us. The happy return of the last movement’s Vivacissimamente accommodates Backhaus’ agile 16ths in the course of a vigorous last movement, only slightly interrupted by a tender, thoughtful moment. The ever-potent Sonata in C minor, Op. 111 (13 May 1937) seems to absorb, even fixate, Backhaus in its driven, contrapuntal throes. Backhaus takes the Maestoso – Allegro first movement as a manic toccata meant for keyboard competition. Breathless and nearly shapeless, the music hurtles in a staggered frenzies, con brio ed appassionato, to be sure. Backhaus does impose a heavy tread to the martial figures that Beethoven turns into a fugato. The last pages might suffice in the absence an orchestral transposition. While the Arietta does open Adagio molto, the subsequent chains of trills, semi-parlando, and scherzando passages must abide Backhaus’ controlled frenzies, technically astounding as they may be.

Portait Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

The Bach Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C (14 May 1937) reveals a master of controlled touch and fluid pulse, and Backhaus’ tempos inject calm and repose; but my own favorite lies with Elly Ney’s arch-romantic version. The Bach Prelude and Fugue in B-flat minor (8 November 1934) projects a mystery, almost in the form of a chorale. The serene delicacy of the Fugue proper provides a dramatic foil to the heaven-storming sensibility of the Beethoven Thirty-Second Sonata.  Backhaus allots to the Pastorale from Christmas Oratorio (6 November 1934) an easy gait, a rocking canter, in the course of its gentle dialogue and passing trills. The bass sound, a bit tinny, does not distract from the transparency of the occasion.

—Gary Lemco

Wilhelm Backhaus: The Complete pre-War Beethoven recordings =
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 “Pathetique”
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”
Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a “Les Adieux”
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111

Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C Major, BWV 846
Prelude and Fugue No. 22 in B-flat minor, BWV 867
Pastorale from Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 (arr. Lucas) 


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