Wilhelm Backhaus has the rare faculty of playing every note as though he had the entire work in view at the same time.
Even for the most devout Mozartian the piano sonatas are not exactly a write-off (Mozart would still be a genius had he composed nothing else), but altogether slighter than you would expect from one of the greatest piano virtuosi of his day. Of course no one wrote better for the piano in combination with other instruments; but whether because the private nature of the solo sonata didn't satisfy his essentially sociable temperament, or whether because the piano itself was then in its infancy, he exploits its resources surprisingly little; far less than for instance his contemporary Clementi. This is whyRead more they are a liability in the concert hall; and I often suspect that those who begin their programmes with K330 or K283 are merely trying to give the impression of 'good taste' or else demonstrating to their colleagues a flawless digital technique; for nothing shows up bad finger-work more cruelly than a Mozart sonata. But few try to solve the fundamental problem of performance which is one of scale and texture. Or else they solve it by giving us Dresden china Mozart, which to me is an abomination. Mozart wrote for a piano, not a musical box.
The first thing to notice about Backhaus's performance is that for him this problem does not exist. With his full, controlled yet velvety tone (magnificently reproduced by Decca's engineers), his clean yet faultlessly legato passage work (no xylophonic tinklings for him!), he makes the sonatas into fullscale works—at the cost, however, of taking them slightly out of the eighteenth-century quasi-orchestral framework in which they seem to have been conceived. A case in point is K332. Eric Blom related it— rightly, I feel sure—to the trio "Susanna, or via, sortite" from Figaro. The same rhythm, the urgent pace, the same sense of conflict beneath the lyrical surface. But for this effect you need a strict rhythm and orchestral dynamics. Backhaus makes it thoughtful rather than dramatic, by shading his dynamics in a purely pianistic way and allowing far more flexibility of rhythm than could ever be managed by an orchestra. By flexibility let no one imagine that I mean those expressive mannerisms, those dispro portionate rubatos with which certain pianists will try to point up the feeling of a work, always at the expense of its architecture. Backhaus has the rare faculty of playing every note as though he had the entire work in view at the same time. Add to this an outlook on each work that takes nothing for granted, least of all those dreadful traditions of performance which are handed down unthinkingly from one generation of pianists to the next, and you can understand how Backhaus's interpretations even at their most controversial (and he is no eighteenth-century scholar) are incomparably more vivid than everyone else's. Personally I find him a little brusque with the first minuet of K282, a little fast with the finale of K330 (though never show),), rather quirky with the presto of K283. But all the slow movements are superbly sustained; so too the opening allegros, especially those with a strong lyrical content. Considered purely as playing, the finale to K332 is astonishing. Best of all (as one would expect because it's one of Mozart's few masterworks for piano solo) is the Rondo in A minor. It is not hard to make it sound deeply felt. But Backhaus gives it grandeur as well as pathos.
But no pianist should miss this disc, on technical grounds alone. He will find that at 80-plus Backhaus can do effortlessly the kind of thing that he himself may have been trying to do for years.