Alan Albeson Thorpe
, October 2006
Wilhelm Backhaus is often thought of as cool and unemotional, but these recordings (dating from 1932-6 when he was concert-touring Britain), demonstrate that he could be both sensitive and poetic. The opening Scherzo in E flat minor is played with demonic energy and a sweeping lyricism, its tempo much faster than the version recorded by Wilhelm Kempff for DG in the 1950s. Kempff replaces the pianist's sheer exuberance with a sombre grandeur and mysterious undercurrents. In lighter vein, Backhaus performs the Waltz in B from op.39 as if in a rhythmic straitjacket, then relaxes for the E major, while the A flat Waltz is tranquil and more spontaneous. He is also freer in the Variations on an Original Theme op.21 (recorded at Abbey Road studios in 1932). Variation 4 has a gentle playful touch; the chords of variations 8 and 9 are exuberant; while the final and most substantial variation is played poetically, its coda lyrically reflective.
The popular Intermezzo in E flat has the requisite legendary atmosphere and the wistful B flat minor ripples along undistractedly The later Piano Pieces op.118 and op.119 have many memorable moments. Backhaus is fast and impassioned in the A minor Intermezzo and G minor Ballade from op.118, but in the second Intermezzo in A he is not as responsive as Kempff to Brahms's dynamics or important teneramente, and dolce markings. In the final Intermezzo in E flat minor (a Malcuzynski favourite), Backhaus is powerful and energetic in the chordal staccato section, yet it is Kempff who captures more of its brooding sadness. In the first Intermezzo in B minor of the op.119 set, Backhaus is for once slower than Kempff - a thoughtfully musing and expressively passionate account; the E minor is performed with restless agitation while op.119 no.3 in C is imbued with joyful energy. Perhaps the most exquisitely played piece on the disc is the Intermezzo op.116 no.4 - Backhaus caresses the phrases tenderly and with a beautiful tone quality throughout. The expert audio restorations are by Mark Obert-Thorn.