||Wilhelm Backhaus, piano
Recorded in 1952 and 1954
XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, April 2012
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Wilhelm Backhaus
Total duration: 71:01
©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
Seventh 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. 27 in E minor, Op. 90 [notes / score]
Recorded January 1954
Issued as Decca LXT 2902
- BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101 [notes / score]
Recorded April 1952
Issued as Decca LXT 2715
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106
"Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier" [notes / score]
Recorded April 1952
Issued as Decca LXT 2777
Wilhelm Backhaus piano
Recording producer: Victor Olof
Recorded at Victoria Hall, Geneva
FLAC Downloads includes a PDF score of each sonata
"This makes three LP recordings of the Hammerklavier in just over a year—surely an embarras de richesses, particularly when the previous version on the market is so excellent as Friedrich Gulda's? I am entirely with A.R., who reviewed that version in the January 1952 issue of this magazine, in finding his performance a marvel of sensibility, full of affectionate imagination; the slight immaturity suggested by his fast tempi (e.g. in the first movement) and lack of tension in the final sprawling fugue is not enough seriously to affect his achievement; and he was given an admirably faithful recording. Precisely why Decca should wish to set up in opposition to itself with a new version by Backhaus is far from clear. Certainly his is a more famous name, and as an older man of wide experience and reputation he is more mature: he treats the first movement with greater breadth (though he is occasionally wayward in rhythm), and in the immense slow movement he underlines its organic growth by the flexibility of his treatment. But his reading has to contend with a recording which is lacking in clarity and depth and which shows a minimum dynamic range (notably in the second movement)—this in a composer in whose works dynamic contrast is a vital factor. Alone of these three recordings, incidentally, this one does not divide up the Adagio between the two sides, for which relief much thanks. "
L.S. The Gramophone, April 1953 (Reviewing LXT2777, excerpt concerning Sonata No. 29) [link]
Notes on the recordings:
Listening to these three recordings it's not difficult to distinguish the sonata recorded in 1954 from those recorded two years previously. The overall tone of Sonata 27 has a richer quality than I've been able to bring out in Sonatas 28 and 29, and in its original review in The Gramophone (not quoted here) the reviewer ends with an observation that: "The whole of this disc is very well recorded", something of a contrast to the criticism directed at the Hammerklavier recording.
The latter sounds, to modern ears, especially flat and boxy, with a very limited lower extension which appears almost to hollow out the sound of the piano. The result is indeed a recording which suggested a much poorer performance than Backhaus actually gives as it minimises the impact of both the dynamic range of his playing and the subtleties therein.
In all three sonatas in this volume I've been able to enact a dramatic transformation in the sound of the piano, despite almost constantly having to fight against multiple shortcomings in the original recordings, something that has been a constant throughout this series. Pitchwise, apart from a sag during the first movement of Sonata 28, these were generally fine. But in the recovery of piano tone I've had to lift a lot of tape "shash" into the realms of audibility - and then try to suppress this whilst retaining the piano. By and large this has been a successful mission, but at times one may still be reminded of the vintage of these recordings.
From the Pristine Classical newsletter of 20 April 2012:
...If you click here you can download a short, high quality MP3 sound file. It's the beginning of Backhaus's Hammerklavier, and I've set it up to contrast the "old" with the XR "new".
We start with a short phrase in its original state, followed by the XR equalised version of the same. Then we move on to the next phrase - again the "old" first then the "new".
There then follows a longer section. Partway through we cross-fade from original to XR. You'll also hear the change from mono to Ambient Stereo, with just the tiniest bit of convolution reverb to fill out the picture. The fade is complete at about 50 seconds into the clip and we stay with XR until the end.
Now you'll have to take my word for this but I've not messed around with the dynamics here to address the criticisms made about the recording in the 1950s - that it was dynamically flat. I've done nothing to make the loud sections louder or the quiet ones quieter. But correcting the tonal balance has achieved precisely that - the first "before" (a loud phrase) is clearly quieter than its "after". Yet the second "before" and "after" are much more closely balanced during this quieter phrase.
Meanwhile the longer, cross-faded section contains more of a mix of dynamics. In its original state it does sound flat, dull and lifeless. But listen to how it comes to life once all the frequencies are harmonically balanced and the full vibrancy of the performance is unleashed. This is one reason I've written most weeks that this sonata cycle desperately needs a re-evaluation - it's never had a chance to really convey Backhaus's playing or vision before and had been quietly consigned to the waste bin of history by many...
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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