||Wilhelm Backhaus, piano
Recorded between 1950 and 1954
XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, March 2012
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Wilhelm Backhaus
Total duration: 64:29
©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
Fifth volume in Backhaus's magnificent first Beethoven Sonata cycle
Long only available on rare imports, and in new 32-bit XR remasters - this is unmissable
- BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat major, Op. 31, No. 3 "The Hunt" [notes / score]
Recorded May 1954
Issued as Decca LXT 2950
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Op. 49, No. 1 [notes / score]
Recorded November 1952
Issued as Decca LXT 2780
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 20 in G major, Op. 49, No. 2 [notes / score]
Recorded January 1953
Issued as Decca LXT 2780
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 "Waldstein" [notes / score]
Recorded July 1950
Issued as Decca LXT 2532
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 22 in F major, Op. 54 [notes / score]
Recorded April 1952
Issued as Decca LXT 2931
Wilhelm Backhaus piano
Recording producer: Victor Olof
Recorded at Victoria Hall, Geneva
FLAC Downloads includes a PDF score of each sonata
"The two little Sonatas, for many of us our first steps in Beethoven, are given with charm and simplicity. The recording of all these is good."
A.R. The Gramophone, October 1953 (Reviewing LXT2780, excerpt concerning Sonatas Nos. 19 & 20) [link]
"In the C major, Backhaus is frequently allowed to "play through the piano" (the two sides were listened to consecutively at exactly the same level of dynamics, on the same set, and in the same room). Colour-range is good, but the atmosphere is studio-like, and the total effect resembles Beethoven's instrument much nearer than Backhaus's. The second movement opened with warmer tone, but I was out of sympathy with the playing here. There is one triumph for Backhaus on this side—his magnificent handling of the Rondo with its almost magical (certainly fairystory) quality of mysteriousness. From this the pianist builds up a castle-like structure. The recording engineers were kind (at last) to his opening but allowed unlikeable thinness to creep in as he warmed up his interpretation."
H.F. The Gramophone, June 1951 (Reviewing LXT2532, excerpt concerning Sonata No. 21, "Waldstein") [link]
Notes on the recordings:
Of the two contemporary reviews quoted here, the second, of the Waldstein, perhaps puts its finger on a significant point regarding a good number of the mono Beethoven sonata recordings made by Backhaus for Decca between 1950 and 1954 and represented in this series - and their often less-than-glowing reception at the time . It also suggests to me that their remakes later in the same decade and through the 1960s were for reasons more varied than simply the advent of stereo.
Put simply, I believe that the Decca production team in Geneva were struggling badly with new technology, particularly in the earlier of the recordings, and all too frequently either made basic errors or were let down by the new-fangled tape equipment at their disposal.
Never in this era have I seen pitch change as much as is heard in the original recording of Sonata No. 19. It begins more or less in tune, though with some wavering through the first of the two movements. But the second, across just three minutes, sinks an entire semitone, leaving the piano tuned to 422Hz rather than 440Hz. It's astonishing that a player as sensitive to pitch as Backhaus could have approved this.
The acoustic was often desperately lacking in sympathy, something I've aimed to ameliorate. But I've also had to tackle peak distortion, wayward electrical tones, high background hiss, and poor overall tone. I can only wonder at how much more favourable some of the reviews might have been had the performances been properly recorded in the first place.
Critical assessment of performances can too often be badly skewed by inadequate recordings, where crucial aspects of those performances are lost. Backhaus deserved better - I hope this series rectifies this.
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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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