Persons related to Chopin Persons related to Chopin

Wilhelm Backhaus

Wilhelm Backhaus

Wilhelm Backhaus

*26 III 1884 Lipsk, †5 VII 1969 Villach

Wilhelm Backhaus was the son of a well-known architect. He began learning piano at the age of four with his mother, an amateur pianist. The boy's talent was spotted by Artur Nikisch, at whose recommendation Backhaus studied under Alois Reckendorf at the Leipzig Conservatory in the years 1891-99. He also studied privately with Eugen d'Albert in Frankfurt. He made his debut in 1900 as an accompanist. In 1905 he won First Prize in the Anton Rubinstein Competition and began his international career. The year 1912 brought his American debut, in Beethoven's E flat major Concerto, and immediate renown. For a brief time he taught at the Curtis Institute of Music (1925-26). In 1930 he settled in Switzerland. He gave concerts throughout his life, making his last public performance in Ossiach, in a programme including Beethoven's 'Waldstein' Sonata, a week before his death, at the age of eighty-five. 

Admired in his youth for his dazzling technique and with a fondness for virtuosic repertoire, Backhaus is regarded today as a leading twentieth-century representative of the classical German piano school, alongside Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Kempff. His reputation was enhanced by his post-war interpretations as an already senior artist. Commentators noted the 'objectivity' and 'Olympian calm' of his readings (opponents preferred to write of his ‘cold perfectionism'). He played with a sparing tone, not overusing dynamic contrasts, even in Brahms's concertos and ballades; he preferred slow tempos (Schubert's sonatas) and a strict rhythmic pulse, placing emphasis on a brightness and purity of tone and a logic of form, both lyrical (adagios from Mozart's concertos) and dramatic (the Scherzo from Brahms's B flat major Concerto, Beethoven's Sonatas, Opp. 106 and 111). He retained his excellent technique into his late years, as is testified by the seventy-year-old artist's recordings for disc. He was one of the first contemporary pianists to play compositions by Bach in their original form rather than in Romantic transcription. A central place in his repertoire was held by sonatas and concertos by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, to a lesser extent by Schubert and Schumann. He rarely ventured into chamber music, but his recording of Brahms cello sonatas with Pierre Fournier are still seen as classic readings.

Backhaus was one of the first pianists to record for disc. His earliest recordings date from 1908, and in 1910 he recorded Grieg's Concerto in A minor. These recordings are now available in collector's editions (Pearl, Biddulph). Most of his recordings from the thirties and forties were issued by EMI, with Decca releasing his post-war discs. Among the most famous Backhaus recordings are the complete set of Beethoven concertos from 1958-59 (with the Wiener Philharmoniker under Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt), two complete sets of Beethoven's sonatas from Geneva (1951-53 (mono) and 1963-69), Brahms's Concerto in B flat major (1939 and 1967, both with the Wiener Philharmoniker under Karl Böhm), 'Paganini' Variations (1929) and Liebeslieder-Walzer (1936), and Schubert's Piano Quintet in A major (1928).

Among Chopin's works, he specialised in the Etudes (he was the first pianist in history to record them - in 1928 for HMV), in which he demonstrated his great technical freedom and panache, quite rapid tempos, not eschewing a strong forte, a playing that is at once both rubato-free and quite sparing in its expression, concentrating on a fluidity of narration and the technical aspects of the works. Besides the Etudes, he also recorded the Sonata in B flat minor (1950), Ballade in G minor, Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2 and individual preludes and mazurkas.


Wojciech Bońkowski

February 2007 


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