About this Recording
8.111041 - BRAHMS: Solo Piano Works (Backhaus) (1932-1936)

Great Pianists: Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969)
Brahms: Variations on an Original Theme • Scherzo in E flat minor • Intermezzi • Capriccios


Wilhelm Backhaus was born in Leipzig in 1884. A major pianist of the twentieth century, he was not a pupil of any of the major teachers of his time, and the only pianist of note who had any bearing on his development was Eugen d'Albert, with whom he had some lessons in 1898 and 1899. Before going to d'Albert, Backhaus had studied the piano, from the age of ten, at the Leipzig Conservatory with Alois Reckendorf. Immediately after his time with d'Albert, he toured England as a substitute for an indisposed Alexander Siloti, the following year making his début at the Proms. In 1905 he won the prestigious Anton Rubinstein prize of 5000 Francs in Paris. He first visited America in 1912 but spent most of his time in Europe taking Swiss citizenship in 1931. Backhaus was a recording pioneer, making the first ever recording of a piano concerto in 1909 (an abridged version of the Piano Concerto by Grieg), and the first complete recording of Chopin's Etudes, Opp. 10 and 25. He continued to appear before the public into his eighties and died in 1969.

On 3 December 1932 Backhaus gave a recital at Grotrian Hall in London. He played works by Beethoven and Brahms. Two days later he was at HMV Studio No. 3 at Abbey Road to record some of Brahms's solo piano music to be issued the following year celebrating the centenary of Brahms's birth. He recorded the first two Ballades from Op. 10 (8.110766) and then the Scherzo in E flat minor, Op. 4, an early work inspired by the Scherzos of Chopin. Two takes of the first part were not successful, but he secured part two of the work in one take. First takes of Op. 118 Nos. 1 and 2 and Op. 76 Nos. 7 and 8 were also published and the second take of Op. 118 No. 3. In some cases two works were fitted onto one side of a 78 rpm disc and in the case of Op. 118 Nos. 1 & 2 it sounds as though Backhaus is under pressure to play faster than usual in the second work. He returned two days later when a third take of the first part of the Scherzo was successful and first takes of Op. 118 Nos. 4, 5 and 6 likewise. For all these recordings Backhaus used a Bechstein piano and although he was in his fifties, his natural ebullience in the Scherzo seems to have put the piano out of tune, the first side of which comes from the final take made during the 7 December 1932 session.

In March 1933 Backhaus was again in London where he performed Mozart's Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, at the Queen's Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Adrian Boult. Two days later he was back at the HMV Studios to record more Brahms. During the December 1932 sessions he had tried to record four of the Op. 39 Waltzes, but on 31 March 1933 dropped No. 6 and recorded only three. At another Grotrian Hall recital on 4 April Backhaus included Brahms's Op. 118 which he had recorded complete the previous December, but also the Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 5, and it is unfortunate that HMV did not record him in this work as his bold and dramatic style in this composer's music is well suited to this work. A contemporary critic wrote of Backhaus's loud playing, 'Up to and including mezzoforte Mr Backhaus plays like a sensitive artist; from forte onwards he becomes merely a professional pianist…. The best vehicle for his style as it is, with its mixture of velvet glove and mailed fist, is Brahms, and of Brahms he played an agreeable selection of rhapsodies, waltzes, and intermezzi.'

As early as 5 May 1933 advance copies of the discs had been rushed to the critic of The Times for review. HMV published the recordings as a seven disc Brahms Centenary Album as well as the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (8.110699). 'His technique is of the highest order, but he sets musical expression above brilliant display. His strongest point is rhythm. These qualities make him an excellent interpreter of Brahms. Yet he shows now and again a curious insensibility to the poetical side of the music.' The latter opinion, however, certainly could not be directed at the Intermezzi in A minor Op. 76 No. 7 or Op. 118 No. 6.

During the 1930s Backhaus was a regular visitor to Britain. On the 7 January 1936 he was soloist at Central Hall Liverpool with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Eugène Bigot and two days later he was at HMV No. 3 Studio to record some more Brahms solos. No doubt the Centenary issue had been a success and HMV were keen to record Backhaus in more repertoire by Brahms. During sessions on 9th and 10th January 1936 he recorded the complete Waltzes, Op. 39, (8.110766) and, having already recorded Op. 118, continued recording the late works – selections from Opp. 116, 117 & 119. Also from these sessions comes Backhaus's poetic recording of Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, both sides issued from the first of two takes. A contemporary review referred to 'an attractive simplicity and clarity of outline.' The Op. 39 Waltzes were recorded complete on both days, but there were problems, and Backhaus returned to Abbey Road on 27 January and recorded them again, this time on a Steinway piano. Also from this session with the Steinway come the released takes of Op. 119 Nos. 2 & 3 and the Capriccio in B minor, Op. 76, No. 2. The following day Backhaus played a Queen's Hall recital which included Schumann's Fantasie, Op. 17, and Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Op. 111, as well as a group of Brahms pieces. Two days later he was in Queen's Hall again where he played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Adrian Boult.

These late pieces of Brahms suit Backhaus's temperament; as Abram Chasins wrote of him, 'Backhaus's preoccupation was with music. His was the European tradition in which the music comes first, the artist afterward.'

© 2005 Jonathan Summers

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