Wilhelm Backhaus Edition
"Essentially, in the incredible ease and naturalness of his pianism, in the unassuming simplicity and absorption of the man, Backhaus was much the same artist and personality then. And he was far from unknown. Even before he won the Rubinstein Prize in 1905, Backhaus was internationally celebrated as a prodigious virtuoso. [...] Backhaus never failed to win a succès d'estime among professional musicians. They always knew his qualities, always marveled at his instrumental perfection, his titanic mastery that scorned every complexity, his unsurpassed freedom and endurance. There was never a time when Backhaus could not toss off any or all of the Chopin études or the Brahms-Paganini variations with an imperturbable calm, an implacable security that left one open-mouthed. Not everyone, for only the pianists really knew what was happening before their eyes and ears, knew how to measure such achievement. There they all sat, in breathless astonishment and envy and despair. [...] Backhaus was a shy, unaffected, recessive personality whose sensational capacities were so unsensationally projected that lay audiences remained totally unconscious of his fabulous accomplishments." (Gerhard Melchert)
This 10-CD box brings us not only concert recordings of works closely associated with him but also early piano roll and studio recordings, including the first complete recording of the Chopin Etudes and a variety of other short pieces.
Backhaus's technique has been praised by many critics, but his scintillating virtuosity in the shorter pieces on CDs 1 and 2 nevertheless came as a revelation to someone who mainly knows him from his later years. These are technical display pieces, and Backhaus plays them to the hilt.
The most impressive piano rolls are of two Liszt pieces (La Leggierezza and a Mendelssohn paraphrase) and of a very difficult arrangement of a Delibes waltz by Dohnanyi. The sparkling virtuosity here is breathtaking.
CD 3 has the 24 Chopin Etudes. They have been reissued repeatedly, but this was a nice opportunity to hear them again. They remain one of the best recordings of these challenging pieces, and the sound is quite good. Backhaus's seemingly effortless technical mastery without musical superficiality is spellbinding. He was the rare German pianist who excelled in Chopin.
The Beethoven sonatas on discs 6-8 come from two recitals: Carnegie Hall, 1954 (8, 25, 17, 26, 32), with four encores, and Carnegie Hall, 1956 (5, 14, 29), with four different encores. The performances have all the hallmark qualities of Backhaus: They are unfussy, straightforward, and totally convincing.
Turning now to the major concertos, there are two recordings here of Beethoven's Fourth, one with the New York Philharmonic under Guido Cantelli (Carnegie Hall, 1956) and the other with the Suisse Romande under Ferenc Fricsay (Montreux, 1961). They are almost identical in their timing. The sound of the Cantelli recording is boxy, and piano and orchestra are tightly integrated. With Fricsay the sound is better, but the piano is more prominent, drawing attention to the soloist. Backhaus's well-nigh definitive interpretation exhibits superb phrasing, articulation, and dynamics, rhythmic precision, virtuosity without showiness, little rubato, and close coordination with the orchestra.
Not only has this collection been largely cobbled together from previous releases, but CDs 9 and 10 each have less than 40 minutes of music, so there could have been additional recordings of this splendid artist. I already mentioned one omission of information. Some Beethoven sonatas have numbers in the booklet, but others don't. Here a date is duplicated; there a track number is wrong. I wonder how reliable the dates are (see Mozart concerto above). But the booklet essay by Gerhard Melchert is good and includes photographs of the artist at different stages in his career as well as reproductions of newspaper articles and of personal notes or dedications from Brahms (when Backhaus was 10), Arthur Nikisch, Moriz Rosenthal, and Rachmaninoff.
. It struck me that Rachmaninoff and Backhaus have a lot in common. They had a superlative technique; they played serious major works as well as small showpieces (not Backhaus in his later years); their playing was unmannered and unsentimental, brilliant but never superficial; they played hardly any chamber music; they did not teach; and they were very private individuals (especially Backhaus, about whose private life little is known). There is a famous anecdote about Rachmaninoff who, when asked who he thought were the great living pianists, replied, "Well, there is Josef Hofmann and there is myself" and then fell silent. He should have added Backhaus.
-- American Record Guide (Bruno Repp)
Release Date: April 30, 2021
Catalog Number: PH21003
Number of Discs: 10
Composer: Carl Maria von Weber, Ernő Dohnányi, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Joseph Haydn, Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, Fritz Kreisler, Fryderyk Chopin, Isaac Albeniz, Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, Moritz Moszkowski, Riccardo Pick-Mangiagalli, Richard Strauss, Robert Schumann, Sergey Rachmaninov, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: Carl Schuricht, Ferenc Fricsay, Guido Cantelli, Karl Böhm, Masashi Ueda
Orchestra/Ensemble: New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Swiss Romande Orchestra, Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Performer: Wilhelm Backhaus