Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 6 in F; No. 29 in B?,
Impromptu in B?,
Wilhelm Backhaus (pn)
ICA 5055 (62:35) Live: Bonn 9/24/1959
This recital features Wilhelm Backhaus (1884–1969) near the end of his long career. The German pianist was known throughout his lifetime for his interpretations of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Mozart primarily, though it
should not be forgotten that he was the first person ever to record the 24 Chopin etudes back in 1928. This recording remains a remarkable document of the ease of execution and the elegance of musical interpretation he shared with certain members of that generation of pianists. His technique was formidable in his heyday and—perhaps even more astonishing—it remained so to the very end of his career.
The opening of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata is a bit slow and heavy, but this soon gives way to a torrent of energy and an upsurge in tempo just a few bars later. Backhaus seems to want to show that each theme, each section, has its own character, which needs an adjustment in tempo to best bring that out. The pianist makes the most of the diverse musical sections in the sonata, from the fluid and graceful scalar passages in the first movement, which sound like shimmering silky waves made of delicate musical fabric in his hands, to the big chordal passages, which are powerful walls of sound that surround and engulf the listener. Backhaus has no qualms about enhancing the effect of certain of these latter passages by adding extra sonority in the bass parts—most often just doubling the octave. The slow movement, one of the most difficult and sublime in Beethoven’s oeuvre, is emotionally taxing to even the most seasoned performers. Backhaus intelligently chooses a flowing tempo: never so slow as to drag, but never too fast as to trivialize the music. The finale is taken at a brisk pace. There may be a few wrong notes here and there (albeit not very many), but his sense of pacing is thrilling: There is more than just a sense of danger; there is in his interpretations the conviction that regardless of the obstacles, he will triumph in the end. There is as much fire in this “Hammerklavier” as the best of them.
The other works on the recital are well played as well, the Schubert being particularly inspired. The gentle way in which the pianist caresses the instrument betrays the age in which he matured: This is elegant and lyrical, and Backhaus shows that though this composition is in the same key as Beethoven’s grandest essay for the piano, it is in character lightyears apart. The Beethoven F-Major Sonata is no minor work, and Backhaus gives it all the respect and love that he does the rest of the program. The opening movement is playful in that Haydnesque vein, the fugato finale lighthearted yet filled with Beethovenian determination and drive. The quirky middle movement is perhaps my favorite in the sonata, though. Backhaus revels in the mysterious opening phrases, lightening the path through the middle section, bringing the piece to a wistful end. It is three and a half minutes of pure bliss.
This is a remarkable recital, one that grows on you the more you listen to it—one captured in remarkable sound given its vintage. For a live recital, one should expect a few wrong notes here and there. Backhaus at 75 plays as few as I’ve ever heard in a riveting performance of the “Hammerklavier.” This is no lightweight rendering of the piece, either; this is one to remember. That said, I have a few other favorites: Richter, Gilels, Rudolf Serkin. The one that I come back to more than any other, though, is Peter Serkin (on Pro Arte). There is in his playing the soaring of spiritual heights along with a real sense of structural logic. The fugal finale is brisk, light, rhythmic—almost jazzy—in his hands. But Backhaus is a welcome addition to my collection. If you are a fan of the “Hammerklavier,” then this recording should be welcome to yours as well.
FANFARE: Scott Noriega
Works on This Recording
Sonata for Piano no 6 in F major, Op. 10 no 2 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Wilhelm Backhaus (Piano)
Written: 1796-1797; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 09/24/1959
Venue: Live Beethovenhalle, Bonn
Length: 10 Minutes 16 Secs.
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