Wilhelm Backhaus on the cover of one of the recent APR releases (courtesy of Naxos of America)
This past March I wrote about a three-CD collection of concert performances given by pianist Wilhelm Backhaus produced by Germany’s Southwest Broadcasting, Südwestrundfunk (SWR). All of these recordings were made following World War II. However, Backhaus’ reputation was established long before that war began; and that reputation included North America as well as Europe. Indeed, as I previously observed, he taught at the Curtis Institute of Music in 1926.
Last month Appian Publications & Recordings (APR) released two two-CD sets of recordings made by Backhaus for HMV prior to the outbreak of World War II. One of these is entitled Chopin, Liszt, Schumann & encore pieces and the other is The complete pre-War Beethoven recordings. Ludwig van Beethoven figured significantly on the SWR release, but the only overlap is in a performance of the Opus 73 (“Emperor”) piano concerto in E-flat major. I am not yet prepared to compare these “before and after” interpretations; but only the post-War conductor, Joseph Keilberth, was familiar to me. The deepest impression, however, was left by the APR tracks of the Opus 111 piano sonata in C minor, leaving me with rather strong thoughts about how those Curtis students must have learned a lot about Beethoven from Backhaus.
The “encore” album, on the other hand, has much to offer because it departs from Beethoven, while history tends to remember Backhaus for his Beethoven performances. Particularly interesting is that Franz Liszt appears as both composer and arranger. In light of the title of the collection, it is important to note that Robert Schumann is represented not only by his piano music but also by Liszt’s arrangement of the “Widmung” (dedication) song from Schumann’s Opus 25 Myrthen (myrtles) collection.
I was also struck by Backhaus’ interest in Spanish music for his encores. Two of the last three tracks in that collection are by Isaac Albéniz (although the second of them is Leopold Godowsky’s arrangement of the tango movement from Albéniz’ Opus 165 collection, which is definitely more Polish than Spanish). Nevertheless, I was more than a little taken with how Backhaus brought the “Triana” movement from Iberia into his own comfort zone and would be happy to listen to that track several more times to see just what Backhaus “got” out of Spanish idioms (not to mention whether anything he “got” rubbed off into his performance of Mortiz Moszkowski’s Opus 37 “Caprice espagnole.”
Most importantly, however, is that both of these collections have a lot to offer to those interested in the history of piano performance, as well as those interested in new takes on old favorites (not to mention the discovery of old favorites that have fallen out of favor).