Wilhelm Backhaus ∙ Volume 1

8.99 €

Meloclassic resurrects two distinct concerts from France, including three Beethoven sonatas from 19 May 1953 Paris and the 14 August 1953 concert from Menton, in which Backhaus joins the Amadeus Quartet: Norbert Brainin (1st violin); Siegmund Nissel (2nd violin); Peter Schidlof (viola); Martin Lovett (cello) – in the F Minor Quintet of Johannes Brahms. These rare live broadcast recordings make their first appearance on CD.

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WILHELM BACKHAUS plays Beethoven and Brahms

1-3. BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No.6 in F Major, Op.10, No.2 [10:16]
4-7. BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No.12 in A-flat Major, Op.26 [18:05]
8-10. BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No.14 in C-sharp minor, Op.27, No.2 [15:07]

Recorded ∙ 19 May 1953 ∙ Paris ∙ Salle Gaveau ∙ Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française ∙ Live Recording
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)

11-14. BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34 [36:28]
Recorded ∙ 14 August 1953 ∙ Menton ∙ Parvis de l’église St. Michel ∙ Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française ∙ Live Recording
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Amadeus-Quartet: Norbert Brainin (1st violin); Siegmund Nissel (2nd violin); Peter Schidlof (viola); Martin Lovett (cello)

Additional Information

Article number: MC 1007
Release date: 02 May 2014
UPC barcode: 0791154050071
Total time: 79:24

Producer and Audio Restoration: Lynn Ludwig
Booklet Notes: Michael Waiblinger
Design: Alessia Issara
Photographs: Landesarchiv München
With special thanks to Peter Ziegler
From the Original Masters ∙ © 2014 Meloclassic

Wilhelm Backhaus was born in Leipzig, Germany, on March 26, 1884. He studied at the Conservatory in Leipzig with Alois Reckendorf from 1891 to 1899, making his debut there at the age of 8. 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. Upon his graduation he was admired for his superb sight-reading, as well as for his wide repertoire consisting of over 300 pieces. His musical education continued under Eugen d’Albert in Frankfurt am Main. In 1899 he debuted in Hamburg, and next year in London as an accompanist.

In 1905 he won the Rubinstein Competition in Paris leaving renowned musicians such as Béla Bartók, Leonid Kreutzer, Leo Sirota and Michael von Zadora far behind. Following this success, Backhaus went on to build an international career as a virtuoso. He made his USA debut in January 1912, as soloist in Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra. He toured widely throughout his life – in 1921 he gave 17 concerts in Buenos Aires in less than three weeks. Only on few occasions was he involved into teaching: between 1925 and 1926 Josef Hofmann gave him a position at the Curtis Institute of Music. In 1930 he moved to Lugano, where he continued to teach, and became a naturalised citizen of Switzerland. In 1937 he was sitting on the jury of the International Chopin Competition. Following World War II, he resumed his concert tours. He made his last appearance in the USA at a recital in New York in 1962, at the age of 78, displaying undiminished vigour as virtuoso.

Backhaus died in Villach, Austria on July 5, 1969 where he was to play in a concert.

Backhaus shared his thoughts on piano technique in an interview with Hariette Browner, published in her book Piano Mastery (1915):

How do I produce the effects which I obtain from the piano?: In answer I would say I produce them by listening, criticizing, judging – working over the point, until I get it as I want it. Then I can reproduce it at will, if I want to make just the same effect; but sometimes want to change and try another. I am particular about the seat I use at the piano, as I sit lower than most amateurs, who in general are apt to sit too high. My piano stool has just been taken out for a few repairs, or I could show you how low it is. Then am old-fashioned enough to still believe in scales and arpeggios. Some of the players of the present day seem to have no use for such things, but I find them of great importance. This does not necessarily mean that I go through the whole set of keys when I practise the scales; but I select a few at a time, and work at those. I start with ridiculously simple forms – just the hand over the thumb, and the thumb under the hand – a few movements each way, especially for arpeggios. The principle I have referred to is the difficult point; a few doses of this remedy, however, bring the hand up into order again. Backhaus turned to the keyboard and illustrated the point very clearly: As you see, I slant the hand considerably across the keys, but this oblique position is more comfortable, and the hand can accommodate itself to the intervals of the arpeggio, or to the passing of the thumb in scales. Some may think I stick out the elbow too much, but I don’t care for that, if by this means the scale becomes smooth and even.

Overhauling one’s technique: I have to overhaul my technic once or twice a week, to see that everything is all right – and of course the scales and arpeggios come in for their share of criticism. I practise them in legato, staccato and in other touches, but mostly in legato, as that is somewhat more difficult and more beautiful than the others. Perhaps I have what might be called a natural technique; that is I have a natural aptitude for it, so that I could acquire it easily, and it stays with me. Hofmann has that kind of natural technique; so has d’Albert. Of course I have to practise technique; I would not allow it to lapse; I love the piano too much to neglect any part of the work. An artist owes it to himself and the public to keep himself up in perfect condition – for he must never offer the public anything but the best. I only mean to say I do not have to work at it as laboriously as some others have to do. However, I practise technique daily, and will add that I find I can do a great deal in a short time. When on tour I try to give one hour a day to it, not more.

Speaking of the action of fingers, Backhaus continued: Why, yes, I raise my fingers whenever and wherever necessary – no more. Do you know Breithaupt? Well, he does not approve of such technical exercises as these (illustrating); holding down some fingers and lifting others, for technical practise, but I do. As for the metronome, I approve of it to cultivate the sense of rhythm in those who are lacking in this particular sense. I sometimes use it myself, just to see the difference between the mechanical rhythm and the musical rhythm – for they are not always the same by any means.

Do you know these Technical Exercises of Brahms? I think a great deal of them, and, as you see, carry them around with me; they are excellent. You ask me about octaves. It is true they are easy for me now, but I can remember the time when they were difficult. The only alternative is to work constantly at them. Of course they are more difficult for small hands; so care must be taken not to strain nor over-tire the hand. A little at a time, in frequent doses, ought in six months to work wonders. Rowing a boat is good to develop wrists for octave playing.

You ask if I can tell how I obtain power. That is a very difficult question. Why does one child learn to swim almost immediately, while another cannot master it for a long time? To the first it comes naturally—he has the knack, so to speak. And it is just so with the quality of power at the piano. It certainly is not due to physique, nor to brute strength, else only would the athlete have sufficient power. No, it is the ‘knack,’ or rather it is the result of relaxation, as you suggest. Take the subject of velocity. I never work for that special thing as some do. I seldom practise with great velocity, for it interferes with clearness. I prefer to play more slowly, giving the greatest attention to clearness and good tone. By pursuing this course I find that when I need velocity I have it.I am no pedagogue and have no desire to be one. I have no time for teaching; my own studies and concert work fill all my days. I do not think that one can both teach and play successfully. If I were teaching I should no doubt acquire the habit of analysing and criticizing the work of others; of explaining and showing just how a thing should be done. But I am not a critic nor a teacher, so I do not always know how I produce effects. I play ‘as the bird sings,’ to quote an old German song.

About Brahms Concerto: I first played the Brahms Concerto in Vienna under Hans Richter; he had counselled me to study the work. The Americans are beginning to admire and appreciate Brahms; he ought to have a great vogue here. In studying such a work, for piano and orchestra, I must not only know my own part but all the other parts—what each instrument is doing. I always study a concerto with the orchestral score, so that I can see it all before me.

About modern piano music: MacDowell has written some nice music, some pretty music; I am familiar with his Concerto in D minor, some of the short pieces and the Sonatas. As for modern piano concertos there are not many, it is quite true. There is the Rachmaninoff, the MacDowell I mentioned, the D minor of Rubinstein, and the Saint-Saens in G minor. There is also a Concerto by Neitzel, which is a most interesting work; I do not recall that it has been played in America. I have played it on the other side, and I may bring it out here during my present tour.

Audiophile Audition Classical Review August 2014

From two venues in France, the legendary Wilhelm Backhaus performs his Beethoven and a rare Brahms Quintet. Published on August 25, 2014.

Wilhelm Backhaus = BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 6 in F, Op. 10, No. 2; Sonata No. 12 in A-Flat Major, Op. 26; Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight’”; BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 – Wilhelm Backhaus, p./Amadeus String Q. – Meloclassic MC 1007, 79:24 [www.meloclassic.com]

Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969), having won the Rubinstein Competition in 1905, attained status as a world-class virtuoso in the Austro-German tradition, a repute he maintained throughout his career, although the popular mind consistently associated him solely with the music of Beethoven. MeloClassic resurrects two distinct concerts from France, including three Beethoven sonatas from 19 May 1953 Paris and the 14 August 1953 concert from Menton, in which Backhaus joins the Amadeus Quartet: Norbert Brainin (1st violin); Siegmund Nissel (2nd violin); Peter Schidlof (viola); Martin Lovett (cello) – in the F Minor Quintet of Johannes Brahms.

Power and suppleness define the F Major Sonata, Op. 10, No. 2, in which each of Backhaus’ landings clearly establishes a distinct musical period. If the rendition does not breathe “poetry,” it certainly communicates an aristocratic elegance of expression. The Allegretto, too, enjoys an athletic, lithe propulsion touched by wit and tender sentiment. Backhaus’ Finale: Presto bounces and frolics most deliciously, a frivolous canon in the manner of Haydn with its own capacities for explosive fury. Backhaus always claimed that his extraordinary wrist action came from his love of rowing boats.

The A-flat Sonata No. 12 “Funeral March” Sonata often elicits from scholars the distinction of having initiated Beethoven’s “Middle Period” of development. Backhaus does smear the opening movement Andante con variazioni with a false chord or two, but then his secure technique returns in dramatically convincing clarity. The Scherzo retains some of its galant origins as it gains momentum and irresistible power. The Trio section grants us a moment of muscular repose. The “heroic” Funeral March movement conveys its own austere dignity, amplified by Backhaus’ resonant fortes and swirling trill. Light and fluent figures illuminate the final Allegro’s bravura, most disarming after the profundities prior.

A pleasure to bask in the thoughtful sonorities of the Backhaus “Moonlight” Sonata, whose opening Andante sostenuto does not seek the transcendent morass into which some others descend. Here, the pulsation of the arpeggiated figure generates its own logos, a fluidly meditative world unto itself. Another moment of galant ease and suave finesse for the Allegretto, a brief respite before the electric storm of the Presto agitato, which has the piano keys’ sailing out of the body of Backhaus’ chosen instrument: sturm und drang with a pondered vengeance!

To hear Backhaus in chamber music repertory certainly remains a rare event; and here in St. Michel Church, Menton, we have the pianist’s revered Brahms in concert with the veteran Amadeus Quartet. The microphone placement for the F Minor Quintet seems lackluster throughout, but the energy of realization, the warm legato in the upper strings’ announcement of the opening theme, and the innate, conscientious balance of forces remains impressive. The perpetual juxtaposition of duple and triple meters rings throughout the liquid first movement in endless permutations. When Backhaus wishes to overpower the subsidiary string tissue, he can at will; but the ineluctable tragic mood, set in the first eight bars, moves without dynamic mishap. Martin Lovett’s cello often sings out plaintively in the midst of the emotional upheavals, of which the coda merely places the resounding period.

The Andante could scarcely offer a more contrasting persona, its lied-form only occasionally dropping into the minor mode. Backhaus seems totally at ease in this placid atmosphere, easily reminiscent of Schubert’s song “Pause.” The obsessive syncope, two versus three, recurs in manic form for the Scherzo, one of those Bismarckian marches tailor-made for the Backhaus aggression. The Amadeus add their own zesty mania for the fierce fugatos that pepper this titanic upheaval that occasionally nods to Schumann and Beethoven. The Finale borrows “dissonant” elements from Mozart and from Beethoven at once, with the serpentine theme’s exploiting almost every note of the chromatic scale; then a three-note cell from the cello announces the dark rondo theme that quite explodes in virile harmony among the principals. Peter Schidlof’s viola makes its presence felt, vibrant against the Backhaus punctuations. The working-out of the forces moves ineluctably toward the cascading, extended coda, which wants to develop its own nexus, until the opening theme urges itself upward and then disintegrates in a blaze of glory led by Backhaus’ wild, martial syncopations.

© Gary Lemco

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