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* BACKHAUS, Wilhelm(16th Mar. 1884 ~ 5th Jul. 1969)

[ Lion of the keyboard ]

1. Curriculum Vitae

[ Left Photo ] Backhaus at 22-year-old

   The most of titans of piano we have known well played the Austro-German works(otherwise we had better say they were not ^^), but there are not many 'pure German' in them. Russian(Moiseivitch, Horowitz, S.Richter, Oborin), Jewish(Rudolf Serkin, Artur Rubinstein), English(Myra Hess, Curzon)... Edwin Fischer, Kempff, and Backhaus were rare German, moreover Backhaus was said he was born as an artist of German classic, and incarnation of German style.

   Backhaus was born in Leipzig. His mother, amateur pianist, began his musical tutorage. He was taught by Aloys Leckendorf at Leipzig Conservatory from 1891 to 1899. In 1898, he went to Frankfurt am Main, becoming Eugene d'Albert's pupil. D'Albert was pupil of Liszt and well-known for his Beethoven interpretation. There are contradictory opinions on this lesson to Backhaus' musical growing.
   In 1900, he bagan concert tour and played with Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Arthur Nikisch. His fame was spread worldwide after the Rubinstein Competition in Paris, August 1905, at which he won the first prize. Though the great composer Bela Bartˇk was competitor in this competition, he said, "Backhaus really played very beautifully."
   His New York debut took place on 5th January 1912. In the concert, he played 'Emperor' concerto and hailed as virtuoso everywhere in USA. He toured South America, Asia and Europe till then.
   He was a pipe smoker, and his private life is curtained up to now. His interest was only playing, especially solo. I have never heard him enjoy chamber musics, whose recordings are only two items. His teaching did not last long - Manchester Royal College of Music(1905), Curtis(1925~26), etc. Except for his military service in World War I, he concentrated all of this time on playing on stage and recordings. Even the Nazi regime could not stop his playing, which allies listed him up as Nazi colleague temporarily. His total concert appearances are said to be over 4000 times. A little before Backhaus' death, Andor Foldes farewelled him "Do your favorite things much". He said "Very good greeting", because 'favorite things' were concerts to him. Even at 85!! Anyway, his age seemed to be no problem to him. At a session of Brahms's Concerto No.2 with B
÷hm, he said to others "This guy plays Brahms well in spite of his age", at which they burst into laughter. In fact, B÷hm was younger than he by 10 years - the session was held when Wilhelm was 83 and Karl 73....
   After World War II, he settled at Lugano(Swiss), and was admired as one of the great interpretors of Beethoven and Brahms by everyone. His nickname '
Lion of the keyboard' has been only for him from now on. His last recital took place on 28th June 1969, of which he died of heart failure seven days later at a hospital in Villach(Austria). He was buried in Cologne.

2. His art & recordings

   When he travelled in USA, a critic reported "His technique was like god". Of course his technical perfectness at young age is surpassed by none, but I cannot say all of the Decca recordings are technically perfect. 78s and monaurals are flawless, but there are some technical problems in the stereo recordings, especially after middle of 60s - Beethoven's sonata No.3, last concert, etc. None the less, I think many Beethoven and Brahms recordings of his are deserved to become a creteria. His playing style is often characterized as perfect technique, somewhat fast tempi, straightness, and power. But most of all, his charming point is soft and mature sonority and deep lyricism. The beauty of his tone is undoubtedly first class in his contemporaries. I have never heard more beautiful and heart-touching melody line in Beethoven's sonata No.31(Klagender Gesang) than his 1966 Decca recording. At the second movement of Beethoven's sonata No.32, the contrast of the breathtaking strain and relaxing is uncomparable to any recording. Knowing not these aspects of his but only his image as powerful pianist, you will be disappointed by his late Decca records. I think it does not justice to Backhaus that we criticize Backhaus if Gilels(called Iron-pianist) is not criticized though his late recordings are very lyrical and soft. It results from misunderstanding Backhaus' artistic essences.
   And his playing has much influences on the young generations from now on. Pollini selected him as one of the most admired pianist by him at youth, and Kovacevich said him as "the only pianist that understood Hammerklavier Sonata".

   His recording company was EMI and Decca, to which he belonged after 1950. At HMV era, he recorded Brahms' piano works under Gaisberg's control, and more works than Decca era. Interestingly, there are very small amount of German works in the acoustic era(1900~20), and they(Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert..) became more frequent only after the advent of the electrical recording technique. After it, his recording repertoire was almost restrained in Austro-German works. All recordings of 78s era can be bought only as Japanese issues, but Pearl, Biddulph, and EMI fragmentarily did.
   In Decca era, there were little works other than German ones(Chopin recital is not issued as CD). He taped the complete Beethoven Sonatas and Concertos, Brahms' Concerto Nos. 1 & 2 in monaural. After 1955, his main activity in studio were rerecording of these works as stereo and recording other composers including Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Schumann. Decca International issued almost all of his stereo recordings as the 'Backhaus edition', and some of monaurals released as 'Historic' series, but deleted from catalogue except Beethoven and Legends release(2 concertos with B

   In his records, I recommend Mozart No.27 and Brahms No.2 with B÷hm(in Legends series) as the first. He sculptured the natural beauty of No.27 as if we saw the sunset, and played matchlessly in the mature expression in No.2 though it's inferior to his former recording with Schuricht at the technique. Note to the manga fans ; in 'Kareshi Kanojo no Jijyo' by TSUDA Masami, it is this recording(with B÷hm) that Arima take to Yukino's home(the famous scene that Yukino kicked Arima). The author's hobby is classical music as the readers can see in the tankoubon notes, and she must have known this record is very famous to the Brahms fans.
   In the Beethoven recordings, concerto No.3(with B
÷hm) and No.5(with Krauss) in monaural, and No.1/4(with Schmidt-Isserstedt) are good, but monaural recordings are not in the international catalogue. I prefer 3 great sonatas and No.30~32 in the complete sonata album. In special, No.30~32 are very supreme and never inferior to any other recordings. But there are some technical problems in his late recordings in this set, so I wish the monaural set be released by international version.
   In his Brahms, Concerto No.2(with B
÷hm) is most eminent, but of course No.1(with B÷hm) and No.2(with Schuricht) are also very good. The latter is appreciated better to the peoples who dislike a little technical instability of the stereo version. Small pieces including op.118 are strong and noble. Though discarded from catalogue, 2 cello sonatas with Pierre Fournier shows his solid technique and music-making in chamber music. This is one of the two chamber music recordings of his with Schubert's Trout in 78s era.
   Others are not regarded more or less, but Bach and Haydn recitals are individual and noble. Mozart's sonatas are somewhat old-fashioned, but strongly structured(not too graceful!). We can see Schubert's Moment Musicaux, Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte in the catalogue(now deleted from catalog). I think his Chopin is too solid, anyway it is available by Testament. His live recording is not much, but Carnegie Hall recital of 1954 is very good - as good as his studio recordings of the same works. It was available by Philips 20th century pianist series with Brahms concerto no.2 monaural recording but the series is now rare. His last recital is worth more by historical archive of a virtuoso than by the playing quality.

   It is not easy for us to find the key to the real reason he was able to stand at the top of artists' world for so long time, but there are some episodes. In his last years, he played with VPO in Vienna at a concert, where the audiences and even the orchestra members gave him thunder-like applause. After the concert, he said with a perplexed face. "Now I returned to the start-line of my life. When I stood at stage at 12, all told me that you were great considering age. Now, all say the same to me" And Backhaus had never depended on only his born-talent. They say there was a painting of very sad miner in his house. Whenever he was asked why he had so sad picture, he replied "Whenever I see the picture, I realize my labor is not harder than his". And when he was asked what was a key to his perfect technique, he said, "Only scale. Scale + alpha".

[ Right Photo ] Backhaus(by Decca)

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Created ; 15th Dec. 1999
Last Update ; 9th Apr. 2006