courtesy of Naxos of America
My interest in historically significant concert recordings produced by Germany’s Southwest Broadcasting, Südwestrundfunk (SWR) has been sustained by the latest SWR>>classic release based on three concerts given by pianist Wilhelm Backhaus. The album is a three-CD collection with the first two discs devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven and the third to Johannes Brahms. This collection will be released this coming Friday; and, true to form, it is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.
Backhaus was born on March 26, 1884 and died on July 5, 1969. It would therefore be the height of understatement to declare that he lived through a lot of history. He was born in Leipzig, subsequently became a citizen of Switzerland, and died in Austria. His touring took him to both North and South America, and he taught at the Curtis Institute of Music in 1926. Where discophiles are concerned, he was one of the first pianists to document his career through a legacy of recordings.
Nevertheless, there is also a dark side to his biography. During the Thirties he was an active supporter of Adolf Hitler, praising the dictator’s love of German music. Richard Newman’s biography of the Viennese Jewish violinist Alma Rosé recounts an incident after a concert in London in 1938 at which Backhaus snubbed Rosé. Newman speculated that his behavior “may have been due to his awareness of German agents operating in London at the time.” Backhaus would eventually distance himself from both Hitler and the Nazi party.
All of the SWR recordings on this album were made following the Second World War. There is a 1953 recital in the Ordensaal of the Ludwigsburg Castle consisting entirely of Beethoven piano sonatas, the third of the Opus 2 collection (in C major) and the Opus 53 (“Waldstein”), also in C major, in the first half, and the Opus 106 (“Hammerklavier”) in B-flat major in the second. There are also two concerto recordings made in the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, one by each of the two composers. The Beethoven concerto is the Opus 73 (“Emperor”) in E-flat major; and the Brahms concerto is the Opus 83 (second) in B-flat major. These recordings were made in 1962 and 1959, respectively. The ensemble for both performances is the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR). Joseph Keilberth is the Beethoven conductor; and Hans Müller-Kray (the ensemble’s Principal Conductor at that time) leads the Brahms. The Brahms concerto is followed by an encore performance of three of the waltzes from that composer’s Opus 39 collection.
The author of Backhaus’ Wikipedia page cites his prioritizing “fidelity to the text.” One can respect this quality as long as one appreciates that Backhaus was not one to ignore the expressiveness underlying that text. Furthermore, however meticulous he may have been about his texts when in a recording studio, nit-pickers will have no trouble identifying occasional stumbles in technique. It would not surprise me to learn that Backhaus gave more priority to expressiveness during the immediacy of a concert performance, reserving greater attentiveness to the text itself for his studio work.
As a result, there is much for the attentive listener to gain in experiencing Backhaus’ approach to both Beethoven and Brahms. Presumably, his childhood experience of listing to Brahms conduct the Opus 83 concerto with Eugen d’Albert as soloist made a deep impression. Indeed, since d’Albert was his teacher at that time, that impression would most likely have sustained beyond the concert hall. Nevertheless, there is no reason to suppose that Backhaus never found his own voice for this concerto. One can appreciate his in-the-moment reading of Opus 83; and that appreciation extends throughout all of the other selections on this album.