Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
The Complete Acoustic and Selected Electric Recordings
rec. 1908-1936
APR 7317 [3 CDs: 223]

There’s no point reinventing the wheel here as, for the most part, I reviewed most of these recordings when Pearl issued their 2-CD set of Backhaus’s complete British acoustic recordings (review) over twenty years ago. Well, they included a few early electrics too. So what I’m going to do is reprint the review below with a few amendments, then add interspersed comments about the extra items in this APR set – the 1916 German Grammophon recordings and the selected British electrics – and round it all off with a comment about transfer quality.

Think of Wilhelm Backhaus and you may well think of his Brahms and Beethoven. Noble, occasionally granitic recordings from the 1950s they were replete with a rugged and unsentimentalised clarity. But the d’Albert pupil was, in his youth, something of a discographic pioneer and far more the colourist and technician than he may have appeared from his stolid appearance toward the end of his performing life.

Backhaus was born in 1884 and his training had pretty much finished by his mid-teens. He made his British debut in 1900. His admiration for Rachmaninov and Debussy – two composers not especially associated with him – was in his early years strong and his musical sympathies broad. He was signed by Fred Gaisberg very early, in 1908, to record for the Gramophone Company. In a catalogue bursting with stellar names – Grunfeld, Pugno, Pachmann, Paderewski, Godowsky, Hoffmann and Grainger – Backhaus’s was the youngest and maybe the most glamorous.      

These discs are studded with felicities of a highly personalised kind. Technique is allied to imagination though nothing is ever taken to excess. It’s often forgotten that it was Backhaus – not Cortot – who made the first recording, in 1928, of the Chopin Etudes and the composer is liberally to be found in the set. There is much to admire; the fierceness of the Chopin Prelude Op. 28 No 1, the pearl-dazzling tone of the Op. 10 etudes, the subtle rubato of the Liszt Liebesträume or his Weber. If you think him staid listen to this 1908 Perpetuum mobile – it’s very, very fast with vigorous bass accents, strident gallops, almost out of control and a breathless excitement. Listen, too, to the singing tone of the Paganini-Liszt La Campanella with its sportive, risk-taking rubato and strong dynamics. Maybe the Bach Prelude and Fugue is slightly lumpy in the left hand. The Grieg Concerto was the first ever concerto recording, abridged to six and a half minutes. The orchestra comprised Stroh violins (fiddles with horns attached to direct the tone toward the recording horn; even soloists regularly used them at the time) and the recording was obviously one of some historical significance, remaining the one such piano concerto until Lamond recorded the Beethoven Concerto in 1922. Backhaus’s rubato in the Op 70 No 1 Waltz is precisely judged even if there is a slight lack of optimum clarity at the start of the succeeding opus posthumous Waltz. Possibly some slightly out of scale chording at the end too.

It’s true that very occasionally elements of heaviness are apparent – in the first of the Scarlatti sonatas, though he was an early proponent of the composer on record. The earlier Moment Musical is a little strait laced as well. But no one should underestimate his sheer rhythmic verve – listen to the Smetana Polka, full of buoyancy and striding animation or the elegance of the Delibes-Dohnányi, for all the triviality of the piece. His Don Juan Serenade is delicious, though maybe his Schumann lacks a requisite ecstasy (not a Backhaus strong suit, then or later). One of the really high points on these discs – and there are, as can be seen, many – is the Brahms Paganini Variations from 1924 – rearranged slightly in ordering for 78 and omitting repeats. This was the only Brahms he recorded in the early years and presages the Brahmsian titan to come.

Bisecting the London acoustics is the sequence Backhaus made during the First World War, in Berlin in 1916. They were mightily well recorded for the period and focus on Chopin with some additions. One can even hear an example of his harmonic modulation between etudes. He plays four etudes, a Polonaise and the ‘Minute’ Waltz, which he’d also recorded at his last London session in 1913. By programming necessity these two performances follow one another. He adds to the total of his Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies by recording No.12 with vitality and bravura. In Berlin he also recorded an abridged Brahms Paganini variations, though he was to revisit the piece, in full, in London in 1924 as we have seen. These were transferred in the past by Biddulph on LHW038.

Once he revisited Britain in 1923 he resumed recording sessions, which takes us to December 1924. The electrical sides are therefore something that distinguishes this release from the more circumscribed Pearl but then APR is on a substantial restoration of Backhaus’ recordings – see APR 6026 and 6027 and 5637.  The electrics once again show how closely associated Backhaus was at this stage with the music of Chopin. His 2 November 1925 early electrics focused on etudes. In 1928 he recorded all the Opp. 10 and 25 etudes, though not the Nouvelles etudes – find these recordings on APR6026 and avoid at all costs Hänssler’s transfers. The 1928 remake of Schubert’s Moment musical is better recorded than the earlier example from the previous year, as engineers had got to grips with the acoustic of the Small Queen’s Hall in the intervening period. The final piece is the splendid 1933 recording of Grieg’s Piano Concerto with the New Symphony Orchestra under John Barbirolli. Antiquarians can go back to the transfer on CD1 of the 1909 abridgements from the same concerto’s first and third movements where Backhaus was accompanied by Landon Ronald and a contingent from the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra. The electric has been reissued often enough, most recently in the Warner Barbirolli box and also by Pristine Audio.   

Now the transfers. Pearl’s transfers are by Seth Winner and have been licensed to APR. So too have the Biddulph Berlin transfers. Fortunately, both labels utilised good copies. Andrew Hallifax has carried out transfers of the electrics with his customary skill. Seth Winner carried out transfers of Chopin’s Berceuse and Schubert’s 1927 Moment musical for Pearl and these have been duly used with permission by APR.

Despite the slightly jumbled-up nature of the electrics in APR’s restoration programme this has been an admirable way for collectors to obtain the large majority of Backhaus’ Gramophone company/HMV recordings. Jonathan Summers’ booklet notes reprise the high standards he has invariably shown.

The impecunious will note that the three discs are priced as-for-two at the mid-price bracket.

These records will show you why Backhaus’ contemporaries held him in such esteem and why he continues to hold a sovereign place in the history of the piano on disc.

Jonathan Woolf

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Gramophone Company, London, acoustic recordings
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Prelude in C sharp Minor, Op.3 No.2
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Liebesträume No 3, S541/3
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Norwegian Bridal Procession
Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840)
La Campanella arr Liszt as Etudes de Paganini, S141/3
Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
Prelude in C major, Op 28 No.1
Etude in C major, Op 10 No.1
Georg Frederic Handel (1685-1759)
Harmonious Blacksmith, from Suite No.5 I E major, HWV430
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Sonata No 1 in C major, Op.24: Perpetuum mobile
Fryderyk Chopin
Fantasy-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op.66
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Prelude and Fugue No 3 in C sharp minor, BWV848 from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I
Fryderyk Chopin
Etude in G sharp minor, Op 25 No. 6
Etude in A flat major ‘Aeolian Harp’, No. 25 No. 1
Etude in D flat minor, Op 25 No. 8
Etude in G flat major ‘Butterfly’, Op 25 No. 9
Etude in G flat major ‘Black Keys’, Op. 10 No. 5
Hans Seeling (1828-1862)
Concert Etude in E flat Minor Op. 10 No. 12
Edvard Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16 – Movements 1 and 3 – abridged
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Novelette in E major, Op. 21 No. 7
Fryderyk Chopin
Waltz in A flat major, Op. 42
Waltz in G flat major, Op. 70 No. 1
Waltz in E minor, Op. posthumous
Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)
Polka in F major – Czech Dances Book I No.3
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)
Sonata in F major, K525, L188
Sonata in G major, K523, L490
Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 in C sharp minor, S244/2

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Moment Musical in F minor, D780/3
‘Hark Hark the Lark’ arr Liszt as Lieder von Fr Schubert, S558/9
Fryderyk Chopin
Etude in C major, Op. 10 No. 7
Waltz in D flat major, ‘Minute’, Op. 64 No. 1
Grammophon, Berlin, 1916 acoustic  recordings
Waltz in D flat major, ‘Minute’, Op. 64 No. 1
Etude in A minor, Op.10 No.2
Etude in F major, Op.25 No.3
Etude in F minor, Op.25 No.2
Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894)
Polka in G major, Op.82 No.7
Romance in E flat major, Op.44
Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 in C sharp minor, S244/12
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Variations on a theme of Paganini, Op.35 (abridged)
Fryderyk Chopin
Etude in A minor, ‘Winter Wind’, Op.25 No.11
Polonaise in A major, Op.40 No.1
HMV, London acoustic recordings
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Don Juan Serenade arr Backhaus
Robert Schumann
Widmung arr Liszt, S566
Leo Delibes (1836-1891)
Naila Waltz arr Dohnányi
Franz Liszt
Liebesträume No 3, S541/3
Fryderyk Chopin
Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53
Waltz in A flat major, Op. 42
Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)
Polka in F major – Czech Dances Book I No.3
Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925)
Caprice Espagnole Op 37
Johannes Brahms
Variations on a theme of Paganini, Op.35 Books I and II
HMV, London, electrical recordings
Fryderyk Chopin
Prelude in C major, Op.28 No.1
Etude in C major, Op.10 No.1
Etude in A minor, Op.10 No.2
Etude in C minor, ‘Revolutionary’, Op.10 No.12
Etude in F major, Op.25 No.3
Etude in C major, Op.10 No.7
Etude in C major, Op.10 No.1
Franz Schubert
Moment musical in F minor, D780/3 (January 1927 recording)
Moment musical in F minor, D780/3 (January 1928 recording)
Sonata in D major; Menuetto, D894
Moment musical in A flat major, D780/6
Edvard Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
New Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli