WGBH Radio WGBH Radio theclassicalstation.org

Wilhelm Backhaus - The Virtuoso

Mozart / Backhaus
Release Date: 09/25/2012 
Label:  Profil   Catalog #: 12052   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Wolfgang Amadeus MozartRichard StraussRiccardo Pick-MangiagalliFrédéric Chopin,   ... 
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus
Number of Discs: 2 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews



WILHELM BACKHAUS: THE VIRTUOSO Wilhelm Backhaus (pn); Fritz Zaun, cond; 1 Berlin Municipal O 1 PROFIL 12052, mono (2 CDs: 155:40)


MOZART 1 Piano Concerto No. 26, “Coronation.” Don Giovanni: Deh’ vieni alla finestra (trans. Backhaus). Read more class="COMPOSER12">STRAUSS Ständchen. PICK-MANGIAGALLI Olafs Tanz. CHOPIN Piano Concerto No. 1: II. Romance. Fantaisie-Impromptu in c?. Berceuse. Waltz in D?, “Minute.” KREISLER Liebeslied. DÉLIBES Naila: Waltz (arr. Dohnányi, 2 vers). LISZT Etudes de concert: No. 2, “La leggierezza.” Paraphrase über Hochzeitmarsch und Elfenreigen aus Mendelssohn. Liebestraum No. 3. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Concert Etude, “Waldsrauschen.” BRAHMS Variations on a Theme of Paganini ( 2 vers: 1 abridged, 1 complete). Variations on an original theme, op. 21/1. RACHMANINOFF Prelude in c?. WEBER Piano Sonata No. 1: Rondo: Presto “Moto perpetuo.” SCHUBERT Military March in E?. MOSZKOWSKI Caprice espagnol. MENDELSSOHN A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Scherzo (arr. Hutcheson). ALBÉNIZ Iberia: Triana


This curious set combines recordings from three different eras and three different recording methods, which are not necessarily aligned. The three eras are 1908, the 1920s, and 1940. The three different recording methods are acoustic recordings (four sides), piano rolls (nine tracks), and electrical discs (12 selections including the complete Mozart “Coronation” Concerto). More annoyingly, since Profil is a German company, I would expect them to be exact on discographical details, but here they inexplicably fail to give some important information. Tracks 8-15 on CD 2, clearly early electrical recordings, have issue numbers (e.g. “HMV DB929” or “HMV DB1125”) but no years of recording (I eventually figured out that DB929 was probably from 1925 because DB926 is identified as being from that year). Even more shockingly, the 1940 recording of the complete Mozart concerto does not identify either the orchestra or the conductor! I thought this was going to be a tough one to research, but much to my amazement I found the pertinent details on YouTube. Apparently, this recording was previously released in 2005 on an Enterprise CD (along with a 1933 recording of the Grieg Concerto conducted by Barbirolli), and they listed the conductor and orchestra, so I’m able to give them to you. (Profil also misspells Riccardo Pick-Mangiagalli’s name two different ways: with the hyphen on the back cover, but spelled “Mangialli,” and spelled Mangiagalli inside the booklet and without the hyphen. They also spell Ernst von Dohnányi’s last name two different ways, once correctly and once as Dohnanýi. Whoever was responsible for the layout of this album needs to be permanently retired.)


I’ve always been a bit ambivalent regarding Backhaus. He was, of course, a great virtuoso, but so were many others from that era, and I often found his playing too cool and detached to be very interesting, but I formed that opinion on what I had grown up with, his recordings from the mid-1950s into the ’60s. The one recording I heard by him that really excited me was his 1967 performance of the Brahms Concerto No. 2 with Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic, which for me was the version for nearly 40 years until I discovered the Rubinstein-Coates recording and the Horowitz-Toscanini 1948 broadcast (one of only three Horowitz recordings in my collection). Recently I had occasion to review the first three discs of Backhaus’s 1952-53 Beethoven sonata cycle as reissued by Pristine, and readers may recall that I had a very favorable impression of his playing until I ran across works that called for more emotion, such as the “Pathétique” and “Funeral March” sonatas.


But I won’t say, as B.H. Haggin did, that Backhaus was simply an uninteresting virtuoso. He was not dull, just somewhat cool, which is not the same thing. One can play Beethoven, for instance, with a wonderful singing tone, great binding of phrases and forward momentum, all of which Backhaus had, without always being hyper-dramatic. It was simply, for me, a matter of the degree to which he was involved or not in the music, and in most of these early recordings—particularly the ones from 1908-1925—what I hear is a greater involvement with each piece, and stylistic differences made between different composers. I also heard some things that were regular features of his earlier playing but disappeared later on: a more rhetorical approach to phrasing and broader rubato. This doesn’t mean that Backhaus’s performances of these works are distorted or in bad taste. They are just the typical style of the era and he, like many others, eventually gravitated towards a cleaner, leaner musical flow. I’ve never heard any Schnabel recordings made before 1925, but if I did I might find similar things. It was just the era.


Like all virtuosos, Backhaus played with tremendous technical facility. Curiously though, for one who played in an unexaggerated and linear style, he used a great deal of pedal. This gave his playing an unusual quality, of pearl-like, chiseled notes in the right hand cascading above a richly colored bass in the left. Especially when playing block chords rather than running lines, Backhaus’s right hand almost created an organum effect which I find fascinating and appealing. This is merely a generalization and not a detailed description of every track, but the generalization does hold up as you listen to the complete set.


The liner notes describe the piano rolls as “boldly stylish and gruff,” which I don’t entirely agree with, but I would caution the listener against considering any but the lone Welte roll to be typical of his playing in this period. All the others were made by Duo-Art, who used a system more sensitive to the pianist’s touch than the average mechanical reproduction of the time but not nearly as sensitive as Welte. Collectors may recall that George Gershwin’s 1925 piano roll of his Rhapsody in Blue was made for Duo-Art, and it, too, sounded gruffer than his studio recordings of the same work with Paul Whiteman (1924 and 1927). I was particularly impressed by the way Backhaus plays the Brahms Paganini Variations; I can’t recall hearing any other pianist having played them like this. The music just dances, and there are even little dips where he leads his lady in a swoop around the dance floor.


Profil’s transfers of the four 1908 sides are expertly done, removing nearly all the surface noise and leaving fairly good, solid sound. One thing that puzzled me a little was whether or not Backhaus was able to use his own piano (he preferred Bösendorfers) for these recordings, or was he forced to use a typical “recording piano” of the time, which was usually an upright or baby grand with the lid removed so that the tone could record more clearly. I conclude that Backhaus used a regular piano from the fact that Edvard Grieg and Claude Debussy used regular pianos for their 1904 recordings. The 1908 performance of Liebestraum is, again, more romantic and rhetorical than one became used to in later years, from a number of pianists.


The one thing you can say about Backhaus, whether early or late period, rhetorical or linear in approach, was that his goal was to be unselfish in his interpretations. He once said, “my aim is not to convince audiences that I play well, but to help them appreciate the beauty of the work I am interpreting.” On the ArkivMusic website it says “His performances were in the classic line of those that strove to present the music in one broadly viewed arc of concept and logic, embracing not just single movements but entire works.” That’s a fair assessment, and so in a way Backhaus, along with Gieseking and Rubinstein, were the more “objective” pianists of their era, employing much more subtle modifications of the musical line. Listen, for instance, to Backhaus’s 1908 recording of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu: though taken at a very fast clip, absolutely nothing in it sounds rushed. It’s just “there.” In short, he left us much to enjoy in his playing, but although the Internet says that both Pollini and Kovacevich admire him greatly, I haven’t met any other pianists either in person or online (and I’ve communicated with several) who name Backhaus as a major influence. Most are prone to name Cortot, Schnabel, Gieseking, even Hoffmann or Lhévinne. Yet, oddly, I feel there is an undercurrent of Backhaus in the playing of many modern pianists, whether they are aware of it or not.


The bottom line is that this is a good set of recordings covering almost all of Backhaus’s core repertoire of the time except for Beethoven (many people don’t know that Backhaus, not Schnabel, was first approached by HMV to record Beethoven’s complete piano concertos, but he turned the project down). One will even find some performances here that relate to those of György Cziffra, like the 1928 recording of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, that you may find surprising if you don’t think of Backhaus and Cziffra as being similar (though, to a certain degree, I do). In short, a good set and an interesting collection of recordings, but I’m still miffed at Profil for botching the disc documentation.


FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Read less

Works on This Recording

1. Concerto for Piano no 26 in D major, K 537 "Coronation" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1788; Vienna, Austria 
2. Don Giovanni, K 527: Deh vieni alla finestra [Serenade] by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1787; Prague, Czech Republ 
3. Lieder (6), Op. 17: no 2, Ständchen by Richard Strauss
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1885-1887; Germany 
4. La Danse d'Olaf, for piano or orchestra, Op. 33/2 by Riccardo Pick-Mangiagalli
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Modern 
5. Concerto for Piano no 1 in E minor, B 53/Op. 11: 2nd movement, Romanze by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; Poland 
6. Liebesleid by Fritz Kreisler
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: Austria 
7. Naïla: Waltz by Léo Delibes
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1866; France 
8. Concert Etudes (3) for Piano, S 144: no 2 in F minor, La leggierezza by Franz Liszt
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: circa 1848; Weimar, Germany 
9. Variations (28) for Piano on a theme by Paganini, Op. 35 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1862-1863; Austria 
10. Morceaux de fantaisies (5), Op. 3: no 2, Prélude in C sharp minor by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Russia 
11. Liebesträume for Piano, S 541: no 3, O Lieb, so lang by Franz Liszt
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: circa 1850; Weimar, Germany 
12. Sonata for Piano no 1 in C major, J 138/Op. 24: 4th movement, Rondo "Perpetuum Mobile" by Carl Maria von Weber
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1812; Germany 
13. Impromptu for Piano no 4 in C sharp minor, B 87/Op. 66 "Fantaisie-Impromptu" by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1835; Paris, France 
14. Hungarian Rhapsodies (19) for Piano, S 244: no 2 in C sharp minor by Franz Liszt
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1847; Hungary 
15. Naïla: Waltz by Léo Delibes
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1866; France 
16. Military Marches (3) for Piano 4 hands, D 733/Op. 51: no 1 in D major by Franz Schubert
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1818; Vienna, Austria 
17. Caprice espagnol, Op. 37 by Moritz Moszkowski
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: Germany 
18. Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 61: Scherzo by Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1842; Germany 
19. Suite Iberia, Book 2: no 3, Triana by Isaac Albeniz
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1906; France 
20. Concert Etudes (2) for Piano, S 145: no 1, Waldesrauschen by Franz Liszt
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: ?1862-63; Rome, Italy 
21. Waltzes (3) for Piano, B 164/Op. 64: no 1 in D flat major "Minute Waltz" by Frédéric Chopin
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1846-1847; Paris, France 
22. Variations (11) for Piano on an Original Theme, Set 1, Op. 21 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1857; Germany 
23. Variations (28) for Piano on a theme by Paganini, Op. 35 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1862-1863; Austria 

Sound Samples

Piano Concerto No. 26 in D major, K. 537, "Coronation": I. Allegro
Piano Concerto No. 26 in D major, K. 537, "Coronation": II. Larghetto
Piano Concerto No. 26 in D major, K. 537, "Coronation": III. Allegretto
Don Giovanni, K. 527 (arr. W. Backhaus): Don Giovanni, K. 527: Serenade (arr. W. Backhaus)
6 Lieder, Op. 17, TrV 149 (arr. W. Bachhaus): 6 Lieder, Op. 17, TrV 149: No. 2. Standchen (arr. W. Bachhaus)
2 Lunaires, Op. 33: No. 2. La danza di Olaf
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 (arr. W. Backhaus): Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11: II. Romance (arr. W. Backhaus)
Liebeslied (arr. S. Rachmaninov)
La source, ou Naila: Waltz (arr. E. Dohnanyi)
3 Etudes de concert, S144/R5: No. 2 in F minor, "La Leggierezza"
Mendelssohn - A Midsummer Night's Dream: Wedding March and Dance of the Fairies, S410/R219
28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35: Book 1: Variations 1, 3, 7, 12-13 - Book 2: Variations 3-8, 10-11, 14
Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3: No. 2. Prelude in C sharp minor
Liebestraume, S541/R211: No. 3. Nocturne in A flat major
Piano Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 24, J. 138: IV. Rondo: Presto, "Molto perpetuo"
Fantasy-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66
19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, S244/R106: No. 2 in C sharp minor
La source, ou Naila: Waltz (arr. E. Dohnanyi)
3 Marches militaires, Op. 51, D. 733 (arr. W. Backhaus): 3 Marches militaires, Op. 51, D. 733: No. 1 in D major (arr. W. Backhaus)
Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57
Caprice espagnol, Op. 37
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 61, MWV M13 (arr. E. Hutcheson): A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 61, MWV M13, Act II: Scherzo (arr. E. Hutcheson)
Iberia, Book 2: III. Triana
2 Concert Etudes, S145/R6: No. 1. Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs)
Waltz No. 6 in D flat major, Op. 64, No. 1, "Minute"
11 Variations on an Original Theme in D major, Op. 21, No. 1: Theme
28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35

Customer Reviews

Be the first to review this title
Review This Title
Review This Title Share on Facebook