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Wilhelm Backhaus ∙ Volume 2

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Still and all, Wilhelm Backhaus was one of the finest pianists of the last century. This double CD is addressed two types of people – those who look for great live performances of Beethoven sonatas and those who collect CDs of Wilhelm Backhaus. These two previously unpublished recitals from Ludwigsburg (1953) and Besançon (1959) are a welcome addition to his studio recordings of the Beethoven sonatas. Mostly in concert, at times, did Backhaus come to life. Backhaus did not begin his career as a Beethoven specialist. He came to this composer late in life — he called it his third career. He began with Liszt, Schumann and Chopin. It was only after a lifetime with them that Backhaus felt prepared to come to grips with Beethoven.


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WILHELM BACKHAUS plays Beethoven, Schubert & Brahms ∙ Double CD

The previously unpublished Beethoven recitals from Ludwigsburg (1953) and Besançon (1959)

CD 1

1∙5∙10. Radio announcements in French by Jean Toscane

2-4. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 6 in F Major, Op. 10, No. 2 [10:47]
I. Allegro [04:27]
II. Allegretto [03:31]
III. Presto [02:48]

6-9. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 7 in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3 [19:27]
I. Presto [04:53]
II. Largo e mesto [07:15]
III. Menuetto: Allegro [02:36]
IV. Rondo: Allegro [04:42]

11-13. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.14 in C Sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 [15:04]
I. Adagio sostenuto [05:13]
II. Allegretto [02:20]
III. Presto agitato [07:30]
Recorded ∙ 15 September 1959 ∙ Besançon ∙ Théâtre Municipal ∙ Radiodiffusion-Télévision Francaise ∙ Live Recording

14-17. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3 [21:42]
I. Allegro con brio [07:25]
II. Adagio [06:14]
III. Scherzo: Allegro [02:50]
IV. Allegro assai [05:11]
Recorded ∙ 12 December 1953 ∙ Ludwigsburg ∙ Schloss Ordenssaal ∙ Süddeutscher Rundfunk ∙ Live Recording

CD 2

1-3. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 [21:15]
I. Allegro con brio [08:50]
II. Introduzione: Adagio molto (attacca) [03:17]
III. Rondo. Allegretto moderato – Prestissimo [09:08]

4-7. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 [37:24]
I. Allegro [11:49]
II. Scherzo: Assai vivace [02:36]
III. Adagio sostenuto [15:24]
IV. Introduzione: Largo – Fuga: Allegro risoluto [10:27]

8. Schubert: Impromptu No. 3 in B-flat Major, Op. 142, D. 935 [08:54]
Recorded ∙ 12 December 1953 ∙ Ludwigsburg ∙ Schloss Ordenssaal ∙ Süddeutscher Rundfunk ∙ Live Recording

9. Brahms: Waltz No. 1 in B major – Tempo giusto, from 16 Waltzes, Op. 39 [00:48]
10. Brahms: Waltz No. 2 in E major. Attacca, from 16 Waltzes, Op. 39 [01:10]
11. Brahms: Waltz No. 6 in C-sharp major. Vivace, from 16 Waltzes, Op. 39 [00:59]

Recorded ∙ 02 December 1959 ∙ Stuttgart ∙ Liederhalle ∙ Süddeutscher Rundfunk ∙ Live Recording

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“Backhaus passing was mourned by those who heard him in person, by those who respected the honesty and sincerity of his musicianship, by those who enjoyed the artistry of a man who had the courage of musical convictions.”

Wilhelm Backhaus was born on March 26, 1884 in Leipzig, the son of a well-known architect. He began learning piano at the age of four with his mother, an amateur pianist. The boy’s talent was spotted by Artur Nikisch, at whose recommendation Backhaus studied under Alois Reckendorf at the Leipzig Conservatory in the years 1891-99. He also studied privately with Eugen d’Albert in Frankfurt. He made his debut in 1900 as an accompanist. In 1905 he won First Prize in the Anton Rubinstein Competition and began his international career. 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, but began a twenty-eight year American hiatus in February 1926—the month after Gieseking’s U.S. debut.

In 1932, Mischa Elman’s British manager, Harold Holt, had arranged a duo tour of England for the violinist with Backhaus playing sonatas by César Franck, Brahms and Beethoven. This was a resounding success, and they repeated the collaboration several times. In 1934, a nine city tour had been arranged, but when Elman arrived in London, he found that Backhaus had sent him a telegram that began “due to circumstances beyond my control….” Elman played the dates with Vladimir Padwa, a Busoni pupil.

After the seizure of power by the Nazis, Backhaus personally met Adolf Hitler, in May 1933 at the very latest, while accompanying him on a flight to Munich. Like Gieseking and Kempff, he never joined the Nazi party, but he served as Präsidialbeirat (presidential advisor) for the Nazi organization Kameradschaft der deutschen Künstler (Fellowship of German Artists). In 1935, the NS Kulturgemeinde published a fifteen-page biographical sketch on Backhaus. In 1936, Backhaus published an announcement in the music journal Die Musik that concerned the upcoming Reichstagswahl near the end of March; it read: “No one loves German art, and particularly German music, more fervently than Adolf Hitler. All German musicians must and will vote for Adolf Hitler on 29 March.” (“Niemand liebt die deutsche Kunst und insbesondere die deutsche Musik glühender als Adolf Hitler. Alle deutschen Musiker müssen und werden am 29. März Adolf Hitler ihre Stimme geben.”).

For Mussolini’s Berlin visit in late September 1937, a number of Germany’s leading musicians participated in a reception held for the Italian leader. By personal invitation of the Führer and Reichskanzler, Adolf Hitler, Professor Hermann Abendroth, Professor Wilhelm Backhaus, Professor Edwin Fischer, Professor Walter Gieseking, Professor Elly Ney and many others took part in the reception at the House of Arts in honor of the Duce Mussolini. While one suspects that Hitler and Mussolini would have been present during at least part of this 1937 reception, it has not been verified. The above report certainly suggests that both heads of state were present. It is worth noting that Reich officials would not let their best artists appear with just anyone. In early 1938, they forbade Backhaus from performing with the Vlaamsche Philharmonie under the direction of Arthur Loewenstein, an incident that caused some outcry in Antwerp. As the German General Consul at Antwerp, Dr. Hans Schmidt-Rolke, reiterated to the Propaganda Ministry in Berlin, “we cannot expect our great German artists to perform in a concert led by the crass amateur and Jew Loewenstein. The local newspaper Le Matin initiated some protest against the German officials’ interference. But a “very elegant solution” (“une solution forte élégant”) was found: Backhaus played solo pieces, and, after a long pause, Loewenstein led his orchestra—without the pianist’s participation. Schmidt-Rolke, wishing to avoid any connection of the two performances, referred to Backhaus’s program as a separate concert. In 1938 Backhaus was also named Reichskultursenator (Reich Culture Senator). Hitler bestowed an honorary professor title on Backhaus the following month.

After the war a new Backhaus emerged. Schnabel was past his prime physically and there was a jockeying for position to assume the mantle. Wilhelm Kempff and Wilhelm Backhaus were the friendly, and at times not so friendly, rivals. Decca Records were looking for a pianist of repute for their catalogue and they chose Backhaus. He fell in with their plans perfectly. In short order he recorded all of the Beethoven piano concerti, and all of the sonatas, and with the help of the superior recordings that Decca were turning out at that period, he soon achieved a clean sweep of the market. Kempff was left in the background, where North America was concerned, and Backhaus soon made a clean sweep of Europe as well. Backhaus recitals were in demand everywhere. In the 1950s no European Festival was considered truly respectable without least one appearance by Backhaus. His Beethoven recitals became legendary, his Mozart was enjoyed by all those who wanted fibre, not fluff, in the music of that period, and his Haydn performances were unequalled by anyone alive. So highly were his performances esteemed that when he made the trip across the Atlantic to give a recital in Carnegie Hall in 1954.

It is uncertain whether he was planning an American tour for late 1949 or shortly thereafter, but the American Veterans Committee wrote U.S. Government officials that August to request information on the artist’s background. After receiving this, AVC Chairman Leon Goldstein made an appeal to the recently nominated Attorney General, J. Howard McGrath, pushing for “the denial of admission to the German pianist, Wilhelm Backhaus,” enclosing documentation of the latter’s “Nazi record and activities.” The Justice Department reacted by investigating Backhaus’s past. While it is unknown if he was aware of these happenings, Backhaus did not reappear in the U.S. until a few years later, namely in 1954. And so he did, giving a solo recital at Carnegie Hall on 30 March 1954 with a program comprising five sonatas of Beethoven, the composer to whom he was so indelibly linked. The performance, which was subsequently released on disc, won the veteran musician great acclaim. Olin Downes praised the “complete authority, spontaneity and spirituality” of his playing. Backhaus returned for another all-Beethoven recital at Carnegie Hall the next year, at which point he carried out an American tour, as he did again in 1956. He outlived Gieseking by nearly thirteen years, and further U.S. visits followed.

Backhaus was ill for a while in the early 1960’s but he returned as filled with enthusiasm as ever to the concert halls and was playing in public until his last public performance in Ossiach, in a programme including Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, a week before his death on July 5, 1969, at the age of eighty-five in a hospital at Villach, southern Austria. First reports said he had died of brain sclerosis.

Backhaus is regarded today as a leading twentieth-century representative of the classical German piano school, alongside Artur Schnabel, Walter Gieseking and Wilhelm Kempff. In his luggage he always carried a four-legged piano stool with him. But perhaps most interesting, Backhaus did not begin his career as a Beethoven specialist. He came to this composer late in life — he called it his third career. He began with Liszt, Schumann and Chopin. It was only after a lifetime with them that Backhaus felt prepared to come to grips with Beethoven.

Notes by Michael Waiblinger, © 2014

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Article number: MC 1030 ∙ Double CD
UPC barcode: 791154054062
Recording dates: 1953-1959
Release date: March 2015
Total timing: CD 1: 73:27 ∙ CD 2: 72:36

Producer and Audio Restoration: Lynn Ludwig
Booklet Notes: Michael Waiblinger
Design: Alessia Issara
Photographs: Gerhard Melchert Collection
With special thanks to Dr. Reinhard Niemann and Gerhard Melchert
From the Original Masters ∙ © 2015 Meloclassic