"A magnificent achievement", played with "an astonishingly youthful vigour" - Gramophone
Backhaus's stereo Diabelli Variations and Piano Concerto No. 1 in new 32-bit Pristine XR remasters
REVIEW - Diabelli Variations
Having completed the whole cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas Backhaus will now, I imagine, and hope, add the finest of the remaining keyboard works.
His performance of the "Diabelli" variations is a magnificent achievement: and it says a great deal for Katchen's much more youthful art that his own performance stands up so well to it and may even be considered, in the final variation (and the wonderful modulation that leads up to it) more spiritually radiant. But Katchen, naturally, does not command the grand manner of Backhaus, which is of the master's time ?nd not of to-day ; nor can one expect of him the maturity born of a lifelong experiencv. Comparisons, therefore, would be, as is said, odious.
There is an astonishingly youthful vigour in Backhaus' playing, a tremendous sense of enjoyment in the formidable task of bringing tle great work to life, and a moving sensitivity in those variations that call for it, particularly in the lovely Chopinesque Variation (No. 31). I must also single out the superbly clear and vital playing of the following fugal variation. The piano tone is on a level with the best we have had in the Backhaus series.
A.R. - The Gramophone, April 1955 (link)
REVIEW - Piano Concerto No. 1
This is the first disc in a new Decca series called "Immortal Masterpieces". BRs have a bright blue label (the colour of old Columbia LXs) and come packed as usual in the stiff polythene envelope and stiff glossy sleeve—this one has a small coloured reproduction of "Rocky Landscape" by Brill—but without programme notes on the back. Most of the first 10 BRs are old friends, but Backhaus's version of the C major concerto appears to be new.
The concerto has usually been issued as a 12-incher, mostly with a fill-up. Serkin, in a now deleted Philips, got it on to ten-inch format by galloping the first movement; Backhaus doesn't need to do that—he and Isserstedt take it rather slower than the fine Solomon/Menges (H.M.V. ALP 1583) performance. But Backhaus plays the Largo as a rather Schubertian Andante, which no doubt helps him to get the last two movements on to one side.
It's a dashing, mettlesome performance, well poised; I had forgotten how lively and companionable a pianist Backhaus could be (I'm not a fan of his readings of the last three concertos), and the performance reminded me that he used to be an admired Mozart pianist. The florid runs and the sense of shape are particularly good; I only didn't care for the extensive meno mosso which Backhaus declares before the Adagio in the coda of the last movement— it overweights the music.
The piano tone is inclined to glare at you, and the range of orchestral tone is a bit small. Perhaps that explains the popular label; musically it's an agreeable performance, smartly accompanied..
W.S.M. - The Gramophone, November 1959 (link)
Notes on the recordings:
Tonally the Piano Concerto recording was good in this stereo version (possibly offering a different tone to the mono release reviewed above), if somewhat hissy, and this restoration has concentrated mainly on reducing the latter as well as correcting some quite significant pitch anomalies at edit points throughout the recording. These caused jumps in the pitch of the recording were edits from different takes had been made or up to a quarter-semitone at a time, helping make some edits sound particularly clunky.
The recording was also rather sharp, more so than the Diabelli Variations, which managed a far more even and consistent A=445Hz. Here my efforts were concentrated on lifting the veil on a somewhat thin and boxy-sounding instrument, coupled with the removal or suppression of a large number of extraneous clicking noises which appeared to emanate from the keyboard itself.
Biographical notes from Wikipedia
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).
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