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Wilhelm Backhaus


An expansive discography covering six decades reveals a fascinating evolution of a supreme pianist.

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ISSN: 2792-8349

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International Journal of Music

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The permanence of recordings can make it easy to think that musicians are consistent in their style, but like all humans they can evolve in how they express, so it is natural that their approach to interpretation and performance would too. Especially for those who aged significantly over the course of their recording career, a maturing of their style and likely a shift in their dexterity can be observed — but this need not discount the value of either their earlier or later performances. Listening to an artist at all points in their career can be an illuminating exploration of their varied musical and interpretative gifts, as we discovered with Arthur Rubinstein.

Wilhelm Backhaus had one of the longest recording careers of any pianist, spanning an incredible 61 years, from his first sessions in 1908 at the age of 24 producing records with the acoustical recording process (when instruments were amplified with a sound-magnifying horn, before the invention of the microphone) to the stereo tape age in his final performances in 1969 at 85. Those who recognize his aged face and white hair from widely released album covers and filmed performances might be surprised to hear the playing in his groundbreaking early recordings.

Backhaus made his first recording on September 29, 1908 for the G&T company (that’s Gramophone & Typewriter, not Gin & Tonic): Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C-Sharp Minor Op.3 No.2, a work that he never rerecorded. In fact, he never made another Rachmaninoff recording, and this might be one of the last composers that people familiar with Backhaus’s legendary recordings of classical repertoire might expect to hear him play!

Despite the obviously faded sound in this ancient recording (it’s some 114 years old!), we can hear the 24-year-old Backhaus give Rachmaninoff’s famous work a terrific interpretation, with creative voicing, clear textures, and some very interesting articulation. In the climactic section, he clears the pedal at a point that shifts the phrasing in a very different way than is heard in anyone else’s hands.

While Harriet Cohen and Evlyn Howard-Jones made the first attempts at a complete Bach Well-Tempered Clavier around 1928-30 before Edwin Fischer finally achieved the goal a few years later, the first recording made of any of the works was this 1908 reading of the Prelude and Fugue in C-Sharp Major from Book 1 by Backhaus. The sound is absolutely remarkable for the period and the playing is wonderful, with beautifully clear and intelligent articulation, transparent voicing, and a lovely sheen to his tone.

A bit under a decade later, Backhaus recorded more works that he would never put on disc again and which seem out of character with the pianist he would become: two pieces by Anton Rubinstein, the Romance in E-Flat Major Op. 44 No.1 and Polka (Bohème) in G Major Op. 82 No.7. This glorious 1916 recording finds the 32-year-old exuding incredible charm with lyrical legato, sumptuous tone, marvellous timing, and beautifully shaped phrasing. What a delight!

An absolutely delightful recording from a bit more than a decade later is this truly stunning January 5, 1928 reading of his own transcription of the Deh, vieni alla finestra (“Oh, come to the window”) Serenade from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni — another reading totally at odds with the style of playing we hear from Backhaus in his later years. This gorgeous performance is both charming and dazzling, with a beautifully phrased melodic line in the left hand and gorgeous full-bodied tone, the virtuosic passages dispatched with panache and charm — the colours and dynamic shadings are breathtaking.

It was primarily in the CD era that more piano fans became aware that Backhaus had recorded the first complete cycle of Chopin Etudes in 1928 — Cortot’s 1933/34 account is one of the more known historical accounts, and even that was predated by his compatriot, the rather forgotten Robert Lortat; as these two French pianists were Chopin specialists, it seems surprising that the honour of the first set of Etudes on disc would go to Backhaus when today he is not generally associated with the works of that composer.

However, his fiery January 4 & 5, 1928 traversal of the Etudes is absolutely glorious, with an amazing fusion of technical mastery, emotional expressiveness, and carefree (yet never completely off-the-rails) abandon — certainly wilder than those familiar with his more famous later readings of Beethoven might expect, but still of astounding musicality. What beautiful singing tone, elegantly crafted lyrical phrasing, consistency of articulation in virtuoso passages, and a host of other pianistic delights. An absolute classic of the gramophone, to be heard over and over!

Almost 20 years later, Backhaus had matured significantly while still demonstrating hints of his fiery youth, as can be heard in these four encores from a 1956 Carnegie Hall recital. Aged 72 at the time, the pianist embodied refinement and elegance while his playing continued to be quite vivacious (his playing of Mozart’s Turkish March is exuberant to say the least). In these four short pieces by Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, and Mozart, we hear him play with exquisite clarity, with a glowing singing sonority, wonderful dynamic layering, and marvellous pedalling (there are some gorgeous silky runs) — and each of these four poetic, spirited performances brings about rapturous applause from the ecstatic New York audience.

We also hear Backhaus ‘preluding’ before each work: he improvises briefly before playing each piece, modulating from the key of the previous work to that of the next one, something that one would hear Josef Hofmann and Dinu Lipatti do in their live performances.

Backhaus became most associated with the music of Beethoven and Brahms, and he had a particularly close connection to the latter: he had trained with Liszt pupil Eugen d’Albert and witnessed his teacher playing both Brahms Piano Concertos in a single concert with the composer conducting. He made some groundbreaking recordings of Brahms solo music in the 1930s when he was still playing with great vivaciousness, and he continued playing his works well into his later years, still with tremendous vitality but naturally with a shift in approach. This filmed performance of part of a rehearsal of the Second Concerto of Brahms from 1966 finds the 82-year-old playing the demanding work with remarkable liveliness and agility, yet also with a more expansive and relaxed style than we hear in his earlier impassioned recordings:

To close this tribute to this amazing artist, some excerpts of his final performance before the public, when he was 85: luscious readings of Des Abends (“In the Evening”) and Warum? (“Why?”) from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, two of the last three encores from what would be his last recital on June 28, 1969. As the announcer indicates (in German), the recital was cut short due to Backhaus feeling unwell: it appears that he had actually had a heart attack during the performance and thus didn’t complete the Beethoven Sonata No.18. However, he insisted on returning to the stage to play these two Schumann works before closing with a final Schubert Impromptu. He was then taken to the hospital, and he died a week later.

Here are those two Schumann performances, stunningly beautiful readings with absolutely magical fluidity, a gorgeous sonority, a melodic line that floats ethereally, and sumptuous voicing. And as he had in the New York recital, he preludes before the first work: Backhaus is perhaps the last recorded pianist to have employed this tradition, which brings a rather intimate atmosphere to his performance.

Whenever we consider the playing of an artist, we might do well to ask ‘which one?’ in the sense that they can be like totally different musicians at different times in their life (and even from one day to the next). That’s certainly the case with Backhaus, whose 61-year recording career spanning the ages of 24 to 85 reveals radical shifts in style but always inspired musicality. He is most certainly a pianist whose expansive discography is worth fully exploring.


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