'The steadfast Old Guard' - Backhaus's Beethoven, from 1969

GramophoneFri 13th August 2010
Wilhelm Backhaus's Beethoven, from 1969Wilhelm Backhaus's Beethoven, from 1969

'The tone quality is unforgettably warm, the bearing always dignified'

Beethoven
Piano Sonatas – ‘Pastoral’, No 15, Op 28;
No 18, Op 31 No 3; ‘Waldstein’, No 21, Op 53; No 30, Op 109
Wilhelm Backhaus pf
Audité 23 420 (86’ • ADD)
Recorded live in Berlin, 1969

Back in the early/mid-1950s Decca set out to record two complete Beethoven piano sonata cycles, at times running almost concurrently, with Friedrich Gulda representing the fiery younger generation (appropriately his cycle switched from mono to stereo roughly half-way through) and Wilhelm Backhaus, the steadfast Old Guard. Furthermore, years later when Backhaus was a relatively old man he was brought back to have a second go, and almost completed the venture. According to an excellent and (as far as I can make out) fairly comprehensive online Backhaus discography, both of the great German pianist’s Beethoven sonata cycles for Decca have been released on CD and, somewhat bizarrely, both share the same CD set number (433 882-2, the mono set was an Italian release). In terms of the UK market, only the later set ever appeared locally with the 1952 Hammerklavier Sonata filling in for the one sonata that Backhaus never got round to re-recording in stereo.

As to live performances, perhaps the most famous sequence was recorded at Carnegie Hall during Backhaus’s American trips in the mid-1950s (some issued by Decca/Philips, others by Hänssler Profil) whereas recital recordings from the last years of Backhaus’s long life have appeared on Orfeo and, most recently, here on Audité. Collectors who are au fait with Backhaus’s discography will already know that right up until the end his playing commanded levels of power and vitality that many a young pianist might envy. In this particular context the outer movements of the Waldstein Sonata provide good sampling points, the finale in particular, surging like sea swell. The Pastoral is freer in phrase and spirit than the early-1960s commercial recording, good though that is, and Op 31 No 3 is a breezy ride, the second movement Scherzo especially, while the Menuetto’s opening measures have the feel of easy improvisation. Only in the helter-skelter finale does one sense a technique being stretched a little beyond its natural capacity. It’s strange (and telling) that while in his earlier years Backhaus was thought of as a prime exponent of interpretative objectivity, listening to him now, when being “cool” is thought of as the ultimate compliment, he sounds endearingly old school, with expressively splayed chords, unselfconscious rubato, a tone that’s either pellucid or controlled thunder and a through-vision that makes listening piecemeal a near-impossibility.

The late E major’s (No 30, Op 109) opening movement features some odd stresses but most of the rest is magnificent, the transition from the finale’s noble theme to the first variation hinged on a sonorous bass pedal that could only be Backhaus. The tone quality is unforgettably warm, the bearing always dignified. One hopes that other recitals might be en route and that some enterprising company comes up with that early complete cycle, plus the Diabelli Variations. The short-measure double pack includes thoughtful notes by Wolfgang Rathert. Rob Cowan

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