Backhaus acoustic APR7317

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

In the booklet to APR5592 (Valerie Tryon plays Ignaz Friedman) Alan Walker wonders whether…the finger-twisting Frühlingstimmen was even within the technical range of the pianist to whom it is inscribed – the severe classicist Wilhelm Backhaus – an unconsciously witty juxtaposition of opposites. Friedman did indeed dedicate his waltz transcription to Backhaus who played it in London in 1925 alongside Brahms’ F minor Sonata and a Bach suite arranged by Godowsky and though he never recorded it he did make reproducing rolls of Strauss transcriptions by Carl Tausig and Eduard Schütt as well as a vast repertoire of rarities including works by Emil von Sauer, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Moriz Moszkowski, Ethelbert Nevin, Ignaz Moscheles and concertos by Anton Rubinstein, Sterndale Bennett and Carl Reinecke; so much for the severe classicist. Admittedly he did become that but as these early discs alongside the discs already released by APR (APR6026 review, review) amply demonstrate he was a firebrand at the piano in his youth.

Backhaus had a long career with the Gramophone Company beginning in 1908 with the recordings here and lasting until 1948. Other than a few Brahms items which have appeared elsewhere APR has now covered this extensive series of recordings – the other disc can be found on APR5637 and APR6027 (review ~ review). In his first sessions there is plenty of popular repertoire including works by Liszt, Grieg and Chopin as well as the first ever recording of Rachmaninov’s C sharp minor prelude some eleven years before the composer recorded it and a fine performance it is. There are six of the Chopin études recorded a score of years before he laid down the complete set and it is noticeable that, with the exception of a beautifully sung op.25 no.1 he opts for the less lyrical studies where he evidently feels more comfortable; both Stephen Greenbank and Jonathan Woolf in their respective reviews of the complete études found op.10 nos.3 and 6 and op25.7 lacking in poetry. His Chopin C major prélude is as lumpy as his later version and he was already in the habit of repeating it, just as Ferruccio Busoni did with the seventh prélude in his 1922 recording; perhaps they felt it wasn’t long enough as it stood? The Weber Perpetuum mobile and Liszt’s la Campanella show that he could dazzle with the best of them but he doesn’t always push things to extremes; the étude in thirds from Chopin’s op.25 is quite restrained compared to some recordings and he finds plenty of charm in the fantasy-impromptu and Grieg’s Norwegian bridal procession, a gracefully buoyant performance. Staying with Grieg we have the drastically curtailed 1909 Grieg piano concerto; Backhaus and Ronald play the first (nearly) four minutes of the opening movement and a tad under 3 minutes of the finale. The piano is a little distant but Backhaus’ lovely tone shines through in the opening theme. The finale feels a little scrambled and uneven, the brakes being applied at the triplets but Backhaus is in fine form and as the first ever recording of a concerto, let alone the first Grieg, it must have been something special to hear. Apparently the adagio was also recorded but never released; while we are on the subject it is a huge shame that his Liszt Hungarian fantasy and Reinecke piano concerto movement recorded on the same day in 1911 remained unreleased. In the absence of an as-yet-untraced single sided 1909 release of Chopin’s waltz op.42 there are two versions here from 1911 and 1923. Both are flexible and elegant though I prefer the silky-smooth 1911 recording. I think one of my favourite recordings amongst the early sessions is his superbly impassioned E flat minor étude by the short-lived Prague-born composer Hans Seeling. In case the pianist misses it Seeling marks strepitoso or con strepito – boisterously – six times in the score and Backhaus certainly achieves that without any sense of over egging the piece and he is gloriously delicate in the tranquil ending. What a shame that the eleventh étude, recorded at the same time, was unreleased. It is only in recent years that anyone has recorded any more of Seeling’s interesting piano music. There are also two recordings of one of my favourite Smetana works, the Polka in F from the first book of Czech Dances; Backhaus was evidently fond of the piece as he recorded it a third time in 1928 and his playing is infectious, casually unconcerned by the occasional wrong bass note in the 1923 recording. The last takes of the sessions, dating from 1913, include a swaggering Liszt second Hungarian rhapsody, full of fireworks and vigour marred only by the heavy handed playing of the friska theme. It is followed by his first Schubert, a slightly rushed F minor moment musicaux; the 1927 and especially the 1928 recordings are still jaunty but are shaped more elegantly. It is coupled with a sparkling Hark, hark the lark in Liszt’s transcription, once such a popular encore item. The other side was Chopin’s C major étude, peerless from Backhaus and, connected by a couple of improvised modulating bars, the waltz op.64 no.1. He does the same in his first Berlin sessions, this time joining the same waltz to the étude op.10 no.2 – it was a 19th century practice he maintained into later life and can also be heard in Josef Hofmann’s live recordings. Alongside these shorter items,which now include two works by Anton Rubinstein, the Polka in G and Romance in E flat deliciously played, are two larger scale pieces, an astonishingly virtuosic Liszt Hungarian rhapsodie 12, even more impressive than his second and Backhaus’ first recording of Brahms’ Paganini variations, which was trimmed down to seven variations from the first book and six from the second. The virtuosity is astonishing as it is in the virtually complete version recorded in better sound in 1924. Nor is this just empty note-spinning; character and virtuosity go hand in hand and he displays an enviable lightness of touch in even the more taxing variations. To the Chopin études and waltzes his Berlin and later London sessions added two polonaises. The A major op.40 no.1 is a fabulous performance but the A flat waltz, trimmed to just under 4 minutes seems a little driven. For me the highlights of the 1923 London sessions are the three transcriptions; Backhaus had impressed me with his transcription of Schubert’s E flat military march on APR6026 and he is as effervescent in his arrangement of Don Juan’s serenade. Widmung is treated as a song first and foremost when many a pianist thinks of it purely as a piano solo but it is his playing of a cut-to-fit Delibes Naila waltz that is pure piano magic with glorious tone and elegant rhythmic vitality.

APR also offer a selection of his electrical recordings, omitting only the Brahms items that are available elsewhere. The A minor étude from op.10 is immediately startling, effortless and light of finger though some may quibble at his closing flourish, sign off notes that also end his sparkling op.25 no.3. His revolutionary étude is equally fleet though I wonder if it could have a little more sense of struggle? Pianophile extraordinaire Jan Holcman singled out Backhaus’ op.10 no.2 and 12 for inclusion in his honour roll of recorded Chopin (the entire list along with many essays is reproduced in Pianists: on and off the record, compiled by Donald Manildi and published by the International Piano Archives at Maryland); I would also add Backhaus’ stunning C major étude op.10 no.7 to that list.

The 1933 recording of op.10 no.1 is added to this small group of 1925 études and this is the most noticeable change of sound quality especially as it is followed by his 1927 Berceuse in soft tones far removed from the bright open sound of the étude. For me the berceuse. to which he brings quicksilver fingerwork and subtle rubato very successfully, is also noticeable as the only really reflective piece so far in this collection – there are no nocturnes, slow movements or lyrical préludes. The final solo items bring us toward the sort of repertoire that we expect from the older Backhaus with five Schubert discs; two F minor moments musicaux, stylistically the same but in slightly better sound in the 1928 version recorded in the small Queen’s Hall – the 1927 was recorded in the main Queen’s Hall and is more distant. The delicacy of the fingerwork in the B flat impromptu, recorded in the same session is a joy and he added the Menuetto from the G major Sonata (not D major as the booklet says) in June 1928. The next Schubert was the A flat Moments musicaux recorded in 1936 which begins a little stiffly but soon settles down. After recordings of Beethoven’s fourth and fifth concertos in 1927 and 1930 respectively (to be found on APR6027) Backhaus turned to Grieg once more for a now complete version of the piano concerto with John Barbirolli and the New Symphony Orchestra. The sound here is excellent, the recording made in the Abbey Road studios which had only opened in the previous year. The balance is all one could ask for though I did find the horn disappeared occasionally in the first movement. From Backhaus’ first playing of the first theme you know you are in for a treat and he doesn’t disappoint. In the cadenza there is the addition of a chord or two to Grieg’s single note line but it is subtle and Backhaus’ tone is sublime. The adagio isn’t indulgent under Barbirolli’s sure hands but Backhaus pushes things along even more though once again the playing is beautiful; this is not a laid back dream of an adagio by any means. The finale’s fireworks are even more impressive than in his 1909 version and we are of course treated to the delights of the F major emotional heart of the movement. A winning performance all round.

The majority of the transfers here, by Seth Winner, have appeared before either on GEMS0102 or, in the case of the Berlin acoustics on Biddulph LHW038. The additional transfers, matching tonally with the rest of the disc, are by Andrew Halifax; they include a new transfer of the Liszt second rhapsody though there is only a minimal improvement that I can hear. The booklet notes that it is most likely a problem with the original master. These recordings and APR’s companion albums paint a vivid portrait of the early musical vision of this artist whose repertoire and style changed to such a huge degree. In their absence one could be forgiven for having a restricted idea of what he was capable of.

Rob Challinor

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (October 2023)

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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 in 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’, Op 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 (1756-1791)
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