||Wilhelm Backhaus, piano
Recorded in 1952 and 1953
XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, January-February 2012
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Wilhelm Backhaus
Total duration: 79:27
©2012 Pristine Audio.
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The 2012 Backhaus
1. Sonatas 1-4
2. Sonatas 5-9
3. Sonatas 10-13
4. Sonatas 14-17
5. Sonatas 18-22
6. Sonatas 23-26
7. Sonatas 27-29
8. Sonatas 30-32
9. Concerto 1, Diabelli
10. Concertos 2 & 3
11. Concertos 4 & 5
Backhaus's magnificent first Beethoven Sonata cycle begins our new series
Long only available on rare imports, and in new 32-bit XR remasters - this is unmissable
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2 No. 1 [notes / score]
Recorded November 1953
Issued as Decca LXT 2902
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 2 No. 2 [notes / score]
Recorded November 1953
Issued as Decca LXT 2920
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2 No. 3 [notes / score]
Recorded May 1952
Issued as Decca LXT 2747
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat major, Op. 7 [notes / score]
Recorded November 1953
Issued as Decca LXT 2809
Wilhelm Backhaus piano
Recording producer: Victor Olof
Recorded at Victoria Hall, Geneva
FLAC Downloads includes a PDF score of each sonata
"The Backhaus series of Beethoven's Sonatas on long-players continues. Sufficient consideration of the style and achievement of the veteran pianist (he is 70 this year), and of his previous recordings of the Sonatas, has been given in THE GRAMOPHONE already, by M.M. in the issue of September 1952 and by the present writer in those of June and October 1951. The two newly recorded Sonatas need to be discussed—the one an early work from 1795, the other a " middle-period" work from 1802, and perhaps the best of a remarkable trio of Sonatas, of which the third in E flat is an almost equal companion.
The first movement of the early C major is played with a splendid classicism of style, in a manner that would have suited Beethoven's own instrument. The reproduction is lifelike, even though the tone sounds hard in the development section. The same remarks apply to the Scherzo, which is near to the harpsichord in its effects. The Finale is similarly dry in tone, but one observes the careful continuity of thought and of graded weight and colour in tone which proclaims the true Beethoven pianist. The slow movement is made into a much more emotional experience ; this is a most moving performance, I have found, despite slight mechanical erraticisms of pitch and surface-hum. The poise is exquisite, not least in the relation of the ornamental to the fundamental passages."
H.F. The Gramophone, January 1953 (excerpt) (read full article here)
Notes on the recordings:
Wilhelm Backhaus's first Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle, recorded between 1950 and 1953, was one of the first for the Long Playing record, and may well have been the first of several contemporary accounts to reach completion. Backhaus was already considered, as the review above points out, a "veteran" pianist, yet later that same decade he started the sonatas all over again, once more for Decca, this time in stereo, a cycle which he almost completed prior to his death in 1969, leaving only the Hammerklavier not re-recorded.
The existence of the stereo cycle has led to this mono cycle, which a number of listeners consider the better of the two, to be neglected by Decca - outside of Japan and a very limited Italian issue, it has never been reissued by the company. Sonically there's no doubt that the later recordings improved considerably over these early 50s mono versions, but there's much that can now be achieved in improving considerably the sound quality of these recordings, as well as correcting the "slight mechanical erraticisms of pitch and surface-hum" referred to in the review above.
In making these historic recordings, from one of the greatest of Beethoven interpreters, available again in fine-sounding 32-bit XR remasters, collectors can at last and with ease determine their own preferences with regard to the Backhaus discography.
Finally a note about pitch: The recordings so far analysed suggest some wayward tape speeds, resulting in pianos pitched variously at between A=432 and A=444, as well as some notable pitch changes, both sudden and sliding, during movements within recordings. One later recording in the series (to be released as part of Volume Three) includes what I take to be a "sticky edit", causing the pitch to lurch alarmingly (at one point it drops more than a semitone) over the course of several notes before steadying itself. Previously just about unfixable, these problems have all been resolved and the pitch of each recording standardised to A=440.
The Backhaus Beethoven Edition
(A Pristine Classical newsletter editorial by Andrew Rose)
A few weeks ago I was trawling through the thousands of records here at Pristine, looking for inspiration, and out of curiousity dug out a box set of Backhaus's Beethoven sonata recordings. A quick flick through them revealed that although the majority would be off limits due to their recording dates, a handful had fallen into the public domain. But would I be able to bring anything to them?
I started with a couple of test transfers and they sounded promising. Certainly they seemed to have potential. But what a shame the entire set wasn't ever going to be possible, as a result of the changes in European copyright law due to take effect in the next year or two.
Of course there was the earlier, mono collection - which might indeed hold more promise of remastering improvements. I decided to check when Decca had last reissued them so that I could download a few samples from iTunes. I searched and searched, but they were nowhere to be found.
So I started doing some serious digging around, scouring discographies and old Internet discussions on the subject, and was astonished to find that, despite some people swearing by them as the better of the two cycles from Backhaus - and the only complete one, as he died before the final recording of his stereo cycle could be made - there had been no CD issue outside of Japan and an exceptionally rare Italian issue (which, confusingly, had the same catalogue number as the stereo cycle, leading me to wonder whether the Italian release was in error).
I suppose this isn't entirely unusual. We've remastered a number of mono Mercury recordings over the last couple of years which have been passed over by the company themselves in favour of reissuing their stereo back catalogue. A lot of recordings fell into a bit of a mono "black hole" in the early-to-mid 1950s, and surprising as it seems for such an important release - possibly the first complete Beethoven sonata cycle of what you might call the "hi-fi" age - Backhaus's only truly complete cycle is one of them.
The recordings were all made in Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland. They began in July 1950 (Nos. 12, 21, 30), with the first six recordings being issued both on 78s and LPs, before dropping the 78rpm releases for the third batch of recordings, made in April and May 1952.
And what a marathon that proved to be - Backhaus set down 11 of the sonatas during those sessions. Possibly this was too much for him, as he returned to Victoria Hall six months later to re-record three of them.
Sadly, in no cases does the archive indicate precise recording dates. We know for sure that the majority, quite possibly all, were produced by Victor Olof, with either Arthur Haddy or Gil Went engineering, where this was noted. Went was at the controls for the final sessions, the most gruelling of the lot, in November 1953, when fourteen of the thiry-two were recorded, yielding some five LPs which were released during the course of 1954. Perhaps by this stage Decca had got wind of Wilhelm Kempff's DG series and wanted to get to the end first...
Ironically, the next entry in Decca's Geneva recordings discography after this mammoth session, which took place in May 1954, bears the following prefix: "These were Decca's first stereo recordings". What a shame for Backhaus, who'd be going through the whole thing again a very few short years later - and already well into his mid-seventies.
I'm pleased to report that a stereo recording was made of Backhaus's Diabelli Variations of October 1954, also the case of course for his 1958-59 Vienna recordings of the five concertos with Schmidt-Isserstedt. We hope to turn to these once the present sonata cycle is complete, but I'm also interested in the mono concerto recordings. Curiously here Backhaus recorded all five for Decca in 1950-53 with the Vienna Philharmonic under variously Krauss and Böhm, but the First was never issued. (I would make clear that in my Decca discography it doesn't appear even as an unreleased item, but my Backhaus discography states a recording of the First Concerto was made in April 1951 by Decca and remains unissued.)
So what do we make of the earlier sonata recordings. Well I'm going to reserve comment on performances because (a) I've not heard them all, and (b) there are far better experts than myself who will no doubt pass judgement in due course. Contemporary reviewers' reactions in many way mirror those for the Schnabel series twenty years earlier - a mixture of rapturous approval and some quite pointed criticism. Whether the years since their recording have changed opinions generally or specifically remains to be seen. Backhaus certainly had heritage and was already a seasoned "veteran" performer (to quote from a Gramophone reviewer) by the time he began the first cycle, at the age of 64.
Technically there are few surprises. The sound quality Decca achieved in its Geneva recordings of this period has never particularly excited me - they're just not on a par with what they were capable of in London at the time - but they're adequate as far as the early years of high fidelity tape are concerned. They've certainly benefited from a good dusting off with XR remastering putting some real life back into the rather dull, dusty originals, but it's been a constant battle against hiss to do so.
Pitch also has proved erratic. On one movement of the first four sonatas I spotted a clear change of pitch midway through, as a result of a tape edit. Elsewhere another bad edit meant the same note was effectively struck twice. All of this is correctable today, as is the wobbliness of pitch in the Third Sonata, and the wide variation of tuning frequencies heard across the sonatas - of those analysed so far I've seen them range from A=433 up to A=444, something which seems more likely to be caused by slight inaccuracies in tape record and replay speeds than the piano itself. For the sake of argument I'm adjusting them all to A=440 and leaving them there.
Thanks to a combination of tempi and choices of repeats, we should be able to get all 32 sonatas, in order, onto 8 CDs rather than the 10 of the Schnabel series. Thereafter we'll see what we can do with the rest of the recordings - concertos and variations - that Backhaus made during this era, ultimately making up a set which includes all five concertos, all 32 sonatas and the Diabelli Variations.
Andrew Rose, February 3, 2012
Click here to view additional notes
Biographical notes from Wikipedia
Wilhelm Backhaus ('Bachaus' on some record labels) (March 26, 1884 – July 5, 1969) was a German pianist and pedagogue.
Born in Leipzig, Backhaus studied at the conservatoire there with Alois Reckendorf until 1899, later taking private piano lessons with Eugen d'Albert in Frankfurt. As a boy of 9 or 10 he was taken to hear both of the Brahms piano concertos performed by d'Albert — and conducted by Brahms himself. He made his first concert tour at the age of sixteen. In 1905 he won the Anton Rubinstein Competition with Béla Bartók taking second place. He toured widely throughout his life - in 1921 he gave seventeen concerts in Buenos Aires in less than three weeks. Backhaus made his U.S. debut on January 5, 1912, as soloist in Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra. In 1930 he moved to Lugano and became a citizen of Switzerland. He died in Villach in Austria where he was to play in a concert. His last recital a few days earlier in Ossiach was recorded.
Backhaus was particularly well known for his interpretations of Beethoven and romantic music such as that by Brahms. He was also much admired as a chamber musician. One of the reasons for his unique sound is his choice of a Bösendorfer piano for his performances and recordings, as opposed to the more common use of Steinway pianos.
According to some critics, Backhaus was one of the first modern artists of the keyboard (see Alfred Cortot for his antithesis) and played with a clean, spare, and objective style. In spite of this analytic approach, his performances are full of feeling. One of the first pianists to leave recordings, he had a long career on the concert stage and in the studio and left us a great legacy. He recorded virtually the complete works of Beethoven and a large quantity of Mozart and Brahms, and he was also the first to record the Chopin etudes, in 1928; this is still widely regarded as one of the best recordings (Pearl 9902 and others). Backhaus plays them smoothly and softly, overcoming their technical challenges without apparent effort. A live recording from 1953 includes seven of the Études, Op. 25 and shows the changes that occurred in his playing style over the years (Aura 119). His technical command is the same, but he is more relaxed and confident and more willing to let the music speak for itself.
His January 27, 1936 recording of Brahms's Waltzes, Op. 39, runs just over thirteen minutes. His studio recordings of the complete Beethoven sonatas, made in the 1960s, display exceptional technique for a man in his seventies (Decca 433882), as do the two Brahms concertos from about the same time (Decca 433895). His live Beethoven recordings are in some ways even better, freer and more vivid (Orfeo 300921).
His chamber music recordings include Brahms's cello sonatas, with Pierre Fournier, and Franz Schubert's Trout Quintet with the International Quartet and Claude Hobday.
The Times praised Backhaus in its 1969 obituary for having upheld the classical German music tradition of the Leipzig Conservatory. His phenomenal transposing powers spawned many anecdotes: finding the piano a semitone too low at a rehearsal of Grieg's A minor Concerto, he simply played in B flat minor — and then in A minor at the concert, after the instrument had been correctly tuned.
Backhaus was quick to recognize the importance of the gramophone. His July 15, 1909 somewhat abridged recording of the Grieg Concerto was not only the first recording of that work, but the first time any concerto had ever been recorded. Later, on January 5, 1928, he made the first complete set of recordings of the Chopin études. At his death, Backhaus was just completing his second complete Beethoven sonata cycle. All that was missing was the Hammerklavier Sonata — when, according to the Beethoven specialist Stephen Kovacevich, Wilhelm Backhaus was the only pianist to have really understood it. (Excerpts from the book/guide to the “Great Pianists of the 20th Century”, published and © in 1998 by the Philips Music Group).
Notes from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_Backhaus
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