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Wilhelm Backhaus - The complete acoustic and selected early electric recordings

Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
3CDs Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: November 2023
Total duration: 223 minutes 8 seconds

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

As one of the great pianists of the 20th century, Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969) needs no introduction. He recorded almost continuously from 1908 until his death, but this set, focusing on his earliest recordings, completes APR’s coverage (see also APR 6026, APR 6027 and APR 5637) of all his solo and concerto output for The Gramophone Company/HMV, except the electrically recorded Brahms titles, which are available elsewhere. These early discs reveal Backhaus as an exciting young virtuoso, rather than the sober purveyor of German classics he was to become.

The piano was a notoriously difficult instrument to capture in the early days of recording and the only pianist of international stature to have made a significant number of discs in the first decade of the gramophone was Alfred Grünfeld who set down around ninety sides between 1899 and 1914. When The Gramophone Company began recording in earnest at the beginning of the twentieth century, they rarely recorded piano solos, concentrating more on vocalists and those instrumentalists who made more sonically successful discs. However, in the early years of the twentieth century their Paris office did record elder statesmen of the piano such as Saint-Saëns, Grieg and Diémer for posterity, and it was around 1908 that the company decided to add some well-known pianists to their roster of artists; these were Mark Hambourg (1879-1960), Percy Grainger (1882-1961), Irene Scharrer (1888-1971) and Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969), four young pianists in their twenties with flourishing careers. Pianists from the previous generation, such as Arthur de Greef and Frederic Lamond, waited a few more years for the recording process to improve before they began to make discs, and it was not until 1911 that The Gramophone Company managed to entice the greatest living pianist, Ignace Jan Paderewski, to record for them, and then only by taking their bulky, primitive equipment to his home in Switzerland.

Grainger recorded three sides in May 1908 and a few more in July 1914 before defecting to Columbia. After a few sides in July 1909, Scharrer recorded many sides for HMV up to 1929, when she too switched to Columbia. Hambourg made his first discs a month later in August 1909, thereafter making a huge number of recordings for the Company right up to 1935 after which his contract was not renewed. Backhaus, who had the longest career with The Gramophone Company, made his first discs at the end of September 1908 and continued right up to the Second World War with further sessions in 1948. Indeed, his entire recording career spanned an extraordinary sixty years from these first discs made by the acoustic process to his final stereo LP recordings made for Decca in 1969.

Backhaus was fortunate to have been born in Leipzig, the home of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, whose chief conductor at that time was the great Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922). As a child he attended many of the Nikisch concerts, and in 1895 the eleven-year-old Backhaus heard a concert at which both Brahms piano concertos were performed by Liszt pupil Eugen d’Albert (1864-1932) conducted by the composer.

From the age of six until he was fifteen Backhaus studied at the Leipzig Conservatory under Alois Reckendorf (1841-1911) who, according to Backhaus, was ‘not a piano virtuoso, but an outstanding, subtle musician, one of the noblest personalities whom I have encountered in my life …’ At the end of his time at the Conservatory Backhaus decided he wanted to study with Eugen d’Albert so in 1899 he approached d’Albert who, during his busy performing schedule, was able to give the young Backhaus around twenty-five lessons during that year.

Although he had played in public since he was eight years of age, Backhaus made his professional debut in 1900, following it with a tour. He had, by this time, a large repertoire of more than 300 pieces and at least twelve concertos. At his London debut he played Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 in G minor and Brahms’s Variations on a theme by Paganini. Backhaus was also appearing frequently with Hans Richter at the Hallé concerts in Manchester and substituted at short notice for Alexander Siloti at one of these, while three years later he took up a post as professor of piano there, at what is now the Royal Northern College of Music. In the same year of 1905 Backhaus won the prestigious Anton Rubinstein Prize in Paris, adding a further boost to an already burgeoning career. Record producer Fred Gaisberg must have been aware of Backhaus and his popularity with the British public and was keen to populate the Gramophone Company/HMV catalogue with piano repertoire from his new artist.

At his first sessions Backhaus recorded popular classics—Liszt’s Liebestraüme No 3 and La campanella, Handel’s ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ variations and Weber’s ‘Perpetuum mobile’. ‘Modern’ composers were represented by Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp Minor (the composer being only ten years older than Backhaus) and music by Grieg, who had died the previous year. Backhaus also recorded a good deal of Chopin at his early sessions, including six of the Études; twenty years later he would make the first recording of the complete Chopin Études. He also set down what is the first recording of a Bach Prelude and Fugue, the virtuosic C sharp major from Book 1 of the ‘Forty-Eight’.

In the summer of 1909 Backhaus was the first pianist to record a piano concerto, a highly abridged version of the popular work by Grieg. It was more of a reminiscence of the first movement on one single-sided disc and the same for the third movement on another, the total playing time being less than seven minutes. However, conductor Landon Ronald, this time with the New Symphony Orchestra, and Backhaus did return to record the second movement on 31 October 1911 but this, and other tantalizing works recorded on the same day, were never released. These included movements of a piano concerto by Reinecke and Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy. This latter work was recorded by Scharrer with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra and Landon Ronald on 14 September 1912, this recording being released on two sides.

The twelve Études, Op 10, of Prague-born Hans Seeling (1828-1862) were published in 1861, the last, in E flat minor, being marked Appassionato assai. Backhaus recorded this and the preceding étude, No 11 in G flat marked Vivace, at the same session, repeating it on 12 July 1910, but unfortunately neither of these recordings of this other Seeling étude were released.

Backhaus continued to tour Britain and Europe and although he was playing virtuoso favourites he was already focusing on major repertoire from the German tradition. A typical Backhaus programme from 1911 would commence with large works such as Beethoven’s Op 111 Piano Sonata and Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B minor followed by a group of shorter Chopin works and ending with some Debussy and Liszt.

Not long after this, Backhaus made his debut in the United States in 1912 with Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto which he played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Walter Damrosch at Carnegie Hall. Already, critics were noticing his dedication to the music he was playing rather than using it as a vehicle for self-promotion. The critic of the New York Times thought that Backhaus played ‘with a remarkable freshness and buoyancy, with true poetical feeling, with brilliant, crisp, and clear-cut technique … An especial distinction and vitality were given to his playing by his finely developed sense of rhythm. But the most significant feature of his performance was its deeply musical quality.’ He ended his review by stating: ‘Mr Backhaus’s performance was thus that of a true artist, unassuming and forgetful of himself in the presence of a masterpiece.’

Back in England, recording sessions continued during May 1913, but the First World War prevented further activity as Backhaus returned to Germany. In Berlin, he recorded for the German Grammophon Company in 1916 but only eight sides were released. They are, however, some of his finest, and in remarkably good sound. He was thirty-two years of age at the time and made his first recording of one of his specialities, Brahms’s Variations on a theme by Paganini, abridged to fit on two 78-rpm sides. The ease and fluidity of his technique is breathtaking, while he always sounds focused and aware of the musical and structural aspects of the music he is playing. Indeed, all the qualities noted in the New York Times review are evident in his recordings of the period, notwithstanding the primitive recorded sound. Also of note is the disc of Chopin’s ‘Minute’ waltz and the Étude in A minor from Op 10 where Backhaus includes a harmonic modulation to seamlessly connect the two works, a common practice at the time in public performances and something Backhaus was still doing in the 1950s. The A minor Étude and its companions from Op 25 again show the effortless technique as well as the abundant style and taste that Backhaus brought to these studies.

Backhaus did not return to Britain until the summer of 1923 when he toured the provinces and in the same year resumed tours of the United States (joining the faculty of the Curtis Institute during the 1925-1926 season). In October 1923 he made more discs for HMV when, due to the advances in recording techniques, he was asked to record again some of the popular repertoire he had set down before the War. Exactly one month later he returned to repeat some of the titles that had not been successful. While the abridged Chopin Polonaise may be rather prosaic, the arrangements by Dohnányi and Backhaus himself are impressive and carefree. By this time technical developments meant that the acoustic recording horn was capturing more sound than ever, highlighting the pianist’s tone particularly well in Liszt’s Liebestraüme No 3 and transcription of Schumann’s Widmung.

In December 1924 Backhaus recorded the Brahms ‘Paganini’ variations again, this time more or less complete on four sides. By the time he returned to Britain for concerts in October 1925 the new electrical recording process was already in use and so he made his first discs with the improved sound that the microphone could deliver in 1929, including a third version of the ‘Paganini’ variations (not included in this set).

Disc three in this set opens with the 1924 ‘Paganini’ variations followed by a selection of early electrically recorded discs that have not appeared on other APR Backhaus issues (APR6026, APR6027, APR5637), so together covering all his Gramophone Company/HMV solo 78-rpm recordings except the electrically recorded Brahms titles, which have been made available in good transfers elsewhere.

Included are two versions of the Op 10 No 1 Étude by Chopin, the reason for yet more repetition of repertoire being that the early electrical recordings were still experimental. Between 1925 and 1933, when he came to record this étude yet again at the new Abbey Road Studios (it was also to appear in the complete 1928 recording of the études), HMV’s recorded sound had improved still further.

The electrical recordings from November 1925 were made at The Gramophone Company headquarters at Hayes in Middlesex, but around this time HMV set up their Western Electric recording equipment at Gloucester House in the West End of London to which performances were relayed from various venues including the Small Queen’s Hall. By September 1926 they had moved the equipment to Small Queen’s Hall where the 1927 and 1928 sides were recorded. An example of HMV’s experimentation with the venues can be heard in the two recordings of the Schubert Moment musical in F minor. In 1927 it was recorded in the main Queen’s Hall (CR matrix, as with the Chopin Berceuse) and a year later, the earlier version having been regarded as unsatisfactory and withdrawn, it was recorded again in the Small Queen’s Hall (Cc matrix), this latter version with a closer microphone placement and less hall reverberation.

Backhaus was still performing programmes of large works, ending with a group of Chopin. At an October 1925 recital at Aeolian Hall in London, just before he made his first electric recordings, Backhaus played the Brahms F minor piano sonata, Godowsky’s transcription of Bach’s D minor cello suite and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, ending with a group of Chopin and Ignaz Friedman’s arrangement of Johann Strauss’s Voices of Spring. (On the same afternoon Josef Hofmann was performing Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No 4 in C minor at Queen’s Hall.)

As time went on, Backhaus played less Chopin and later became known as an interpreter of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart, having recorded none of their music in the acoustic era, apart from the virtuoso ‘Paganini’ variations of Brahms.

The purpose-built Abbey Road Studios opened in 1932, in time for the Grieg piano concerto to be recorded there the following year with John Barbirolli. Along with his HMV recordings of Beethoven’s fourth and fifth piano concertos, this 1933 recording of Grieg’s piano concerto is one of Backhaus’s finest. The freshness and clarity he brings to it make it sound like a healthy breath of Scandinavian air.

When Lawrence Gilman of the New York Herald Tribune wrote of Backhaus in the mid-1920s he stated that he was ‘a virtuoso – there are no more brilliant ones; yet in his case the musician, the poet, the interpreter has conquered the virtuoso. He has given a new honour, a new dignity to that somewhat dubious word’.

In all of these recordings one hears a totally reliable and dependable young artist, brimming with confidence, delivering performances that are technically and musically secure in every respect.

Jonathan Summers © 2023

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