BACKHAUS Beethoven Edition Complete - PABX009

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BACKHAUS Beethoven Edition Complete - PABX009

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Overview

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas 1-32
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto Nos. 1-5
BEETHOVEN Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120

Recorded 1950-1958


Wilhelm Backhaus, piano
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Clemens Krauss,
conductor
Karl Böhm,
conductor
Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, conductor

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This set contains the following albums:

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BACKHAUS Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1 (1952/53) - PAKM051

Backhaus's magnificent first Beethoven Sonata cycle begins here

Long only available on rare imports, and in new 32-bit XR remasters - this is unmissable


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.

Andrew Rose

BACKHAUS Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2 (1952/53) - PAKM052

Second 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


Gramophone's reviewer in 1951 notes some blasting on louder passages on his LP copy, and likewise I had to deal with shortcomings of the recording which I firmly ascribe to the early tape system in use - which was much improved by November 1953 for the later three recordings in this volume. Whether or not the reviewer was hearing disc blasting, there was often a tendency towards a mushy kind of tape hiss to surround the upper frequencies of louder notes and chords, and I've spent a lot of time removing or taming these.

Elsewhere, pitch has once again been susprisingly variable, both in terms of overall tuning, and in clear issues with both tape machines and editing, all of which can now be remedied. Sound quality was generally good - my aim here, which I feel has been achieved, has been to clarify the piano tone whilst reducing background noise and hiss.

Andrew Rose

BACKHAUS Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3 (1950-53) - PAKM053

Third 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


As with other releases in this series I've taken great care to bring consistency to the tuning of Backhaus's piano where previously it was absent - the average pitches for each of these four sonatas as presented by Decca were A4 = 433.9, 442.5, 432.7 and 438.7 hertz respectively. Furthermore the 12th started low, before drifting gradually upwards, whilst the opposite effect was to be heard in the 13th. Owners of the Japanese Decca (London) CD reissue of the 13th will also be familiar with a 'sticky edit' pitch lurch of more than a tone in the finale, not present here, as well as several completely missing notes in the middle of first movement!

Tonally I've continued to accept slightly higher than usual levels of tape hiss in order to bring out the full tone of Backhaus's piano, something which was considerably muted in the Decca incarnation. Once again it was no surprise to discover that the later recordings were of somewhat better audio quality than the earlier ones.

Andrew Rose

BACKHAUS Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 4 (1952/53) - PAKM054

Fourth 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


Generally speaking these recordings provided reasonably straightforward work for the remastering engineer, especially coming, as this volume has, a good number of sonatas into the series, with many carefully-chosen settings now determined for the series, restoration techniques suitable for the material worked out, and only minor variations to be found. The Moonlight offers slightly higher background hiss - this seems to be a characteristic of this work in a number of recordings, possible as a result of the works intrinsically wide dynamic range.

Andrew Rose

BACKHAUS Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 5 (1950-54) - PAKM055

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



"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)

"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")


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.

Andrew Rose

BACKHAUS Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 6 (1951-53) - PAKM056

Sixth 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


"While Backhaus's understanding of Beethoven is not, at this time of day, in any dispute, there is room to question whether these particular performances succeed in conveying it to the listener. They are dominated by a savage attack, and a refusal to play below an mp-mf degree of volume; a refusal that may be the result of many years' experience of recording under less satisfactory technical conditions than to-day's—which are here not on their very best behaviour, but are nevertheless good, and of course greatly superior to those that may be in Backhaus's mind .. The Appassionata stands up to the strain fairly well ; and is, indeed, particularly in the last movement, an impressive display of technical powers of the most advanced kind."

M.M. The Gramophone, September 1952 (Reviewing LXT2715, excerpt concerning Sonata No. 23)

"The classical, precise, authoritative Backhaus is presented here with uncommonly lifelike quality. He has his minor erraticisms, but they are no more than a part of the person who is presenting a great master for our full attention. Backhaus's own intense conviction of the composer's mastery fully overcomes any doubts one might have about the music. In truth, not one of these three sonatas is of great magnitude—that in G major (op. 79), Beethoven himself entitled " sonate facile ou sonatine."... I like the brittle, guitarry effect Backhaus creates for the opening movement of Op. 79: it has a kind of peasant air about it. The andante is taken well under walking pace, and I could bear the vivace finale more headlong. From this disc I had slight trouble with blast, which remained even if one turned the dynamics down. Backhaus's percussive style need not lead to this fault."

H.F. The Gramophone, October 1951 (Reviewing LXT2603, excerpt concerning Sonata No. 25)


I have pointed out in previous technical notes that it has increasingly become my opinion that this series of Beethoven sonata recordings is one neglected - and, in its day, often disparaged - not primarily as a result of the playing by Backhaus of these works, but the by the raw deal he was served up by Decca's inadequate recordings.

In this volume pitch is, for the most part, not the issue seen previously, the exception being the first movement of the Appassionata, which dips alarmingly to begin with before proceeding to waver and jump about throughout the movement, most probably the result of editing together various takes as much as poor general tape speed stability. This has, for the first time, been corrected.

I would have to take issue with The Gramophone reviewer's suggestion that Backhaus refuses to play below mp-mf throughout the work - but can well imagine that impression being given by poor reproduction of his playing. Much of this is now happily alleviated here, and these interpretations can be more clearly judged within the excellent sonata cycle they so clearly combine to produce.

Andrew Rose

BACKHAUS Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 7 (1952/54) - PAKM057

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


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.

Andrew Rose

BACKHAUS Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, Vol. 8 (1950/53) - PAKM058

Eighth and final 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


Sonata No. 30 was among the earliest recorded in this series and among the few to be released on 78s alongside an LP. Nevertheless it's almost on a par with the two 1953 recordings with regard to technical quality. All three were again less than ideal, with various flaws familiar to this cycle, yet beyond a tendency to upper-frequency fuzziness and some pre- and post-echo they were generally at the higher end of the quality scale when looked at in that context. Perhaps the fact of a 78rpm issue of the first of these three works should serve as a reminder of the somewhat primitive technical origins of Backhaus's first complete cycle - by the time he returned to Beethoven sonatas in the Decca studios a few short years later, recording technology had advanced considerably.

Andrew Rose


BACKHAUS Beethoven Edition: Volume 9 - Piano Concerto 1, Diabelli Variations (1954/58) - PASC326

"A magnificent achievement", played with "an astonishingly youthful vigour" - Gramophone

Backhaus's stereo Diabelli Variations and