Wilhelm Backhaus: Chopin, Liszt, Schumann & encore pieces
Wilhelm Backhaus’s Chopin Études, Opp 10 and 25 from 1928, were the first to be recorded as a complete set and remain justly famous, retaining even today an unassailable position among the finest. They are part of a new APR two-disc set, alongside a miscellany of Chopin, Liszt, Schumann (including the C major Fantasie) and others, comprising Backhaus’s recordings for HMV between 1925 and 1937. Listeners familiar only with the formidable granite surfaces of Backhaus’s post-war Beethoven or Brahms will find in this collection a treasure trove of delightful surprises.
Backhaus’s own transcriptions of the Serenade from Don Giovanni and the E flat Marche militaire of Schubert warrant pride of place. Virtuoso transcriptions they undoubtedly are, but with the peculiar quirk that one must listen closely to discern their difficulty. Technical display, as it were, is almost hidden, so that the original piece is front and centre, subtly embellished with its by no means obvious virtuoso trappings. Given the fame of Backhaus’s Chopin Études, it’s less surprising that two Waltzes, Op 18 and Op 64 No 1, should be brilliant or the Berceuse charming. Yet Albéniz’s ‘Triana’ and Godowsky’s transcription of the Tango, Op 165 No 1, are likely to leave your windows steamed. No, really.
Backhaus was also an extraordinarily persuasive Liszt player. The sixth Soirée de Vienne is savoured as one would the unpretentious pleasure of a light white Viennese wine. ‘Waldesrauschen’ is imbued with the seriousness of purpose of a symphonic poem. What the Second Hungarian Rhapsody lacks in gypsy swagger and abandon is more than compensated by the ease and polish of its sterling pianism. His third Liebestraum is perhaps most remarkable in that nothing is allowed to obtrude between the listener and Freiligrath’s ardent text, which occupies the foreground as though it were declaimed by a great actor, without excess or affectation. The same could be said of Rückert’s ‘Du meine Seele’ in this unforced yet eloquent performance of Liszt’s setting of Schumann’s ‘Widmung’.
As impressive as some of the smaller Schumann pieces are, it is the 1937 C major Fantasie that commands attention. Shot through with poetry and passion, and supported by one of the great techniques of the century, this Fantasie is grippingly beautiful, all the more astonishing when you consider that the second movement represents a single unedited take.
The other two-disc set, devoted to the pre war Beethoven recordings, seems more consistent with the image we have of Backhaus’s later years. The G major Concerto (No 4) was recorded in September 1929 and the following March. The Emperor, on the other hand, was captured in a single day in January 1927. Landon Ronald was the able collaborator in both. Backhaus has a particularly fascinating way with the development of the G major’s opening Allegro but it must be said that his decision to use his own elaborate cadenza in the Rondo, in lieu of Beethoven’s, threatens to swamp the movement. Jed Distler’s perceptive booklet notes point out that Backhaus felt that the Emperor was the recording with which he would most like to represent himself to posterity. The sonatas are a bit of a mixed bag, some superior to his later recordings, others not. The Bach pieces were fillers for the extra sides of the original 78 releases.
Both of these welcome sets fill out a portrait of one of Germany’s important pianists.