VOLUME 4. BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 14 in c#, op. 27/2 "Moonlight".
Piano Sonata No. 15 in D, op. 28 "Pastorale". Piano
Sonata No. 16 in G, op. 31/1. Piano Sonata No. 17 in g, op. 31/2 "The Tempest".
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano).
Pristine Classics PAKM 054 TT: 75:27.
VOLUME 5. BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat, op. 31/3. Piano Sonata
No. 19 in g, op. 49/1. Piano Sonata No. 20 in G, op. 49/2. Piano Sonata
No. 21 in C, op. 53 "Waldstein". Piano Sonata No.
22 in F, op. 54.
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano).
Pristine Classics PAKM 055 TT: 64:29.
VOLUME 6. BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 23 in f, op. 57 "Appassionata".
Piano Sonata No. 24 in f#, op. 78 "À Thérése".
Piano Sonata No. 25 in G, op. 79. Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat, op.
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano).
Pristine Classics PAKM 056 TT: 55:41.
VOLUME 7. BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 27 in e, op. 90. Piano Sonata No.
28 in A, op. 101. Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat, op. 106 "Hammerklavier".
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano).
Pristine Classics PAKM 054 TT: 75:27.
VOLUME 8. BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E, op. 109. Piano Sonata No.
31 in A-flat, op. 110. Piano Sonata No. 32 in c, op. 111.
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano).
Pristine Classics PAKM 054 TT: 75:27.
Available from www.pristineclassical.com
I'm betwixt and between. Backhaus's pianism continues to flummox me.
I acknowledge his superb technique, but often I don't particularly care
his interpretations. In this traversal of the sonatas, he often ignores
what Beethoven actually wrote. He begins early on in the "Moonlight" Sonata.
Beethoven writes "alla breve" for tempo indication, which means
a slow two in every bar. Backhaus gives us a slow four, as do many other
pianists, but not ones I usually like in Beethoven. Frequently, they
play the music at a tempo which makes impossible a moving line of music.
line, however, is never in doubt, and he can accommodate even further
micro-hesitations and -speedups. He does all of it beautifully, but at
the expense of the
composer's pedal markings, giving a very clear texture where Beethoven
specifies a dreamy fuzz. The second movement comes down as a bit heavy-handed.
The third is powerfully stormy. Yet, except for that first movement,
I just don't care. It's like riding in a big old boat of an American
The ride is so smooth, it puts you to sleep.
Backhaus's "Pastorale" lacks consistency -- or rather it has
too much. Lovely things stand side by side with music on automatic. The
opening movement at first seems stuck in mud (practically a Backhaus fingerprint
in these sonatas' starting measures) an then grudgingly pulls itself free.
Ideally, I should feel an oceanic kind of "roll" from the tempo
and the bass line, which Backhaus never reaches at any speed. The second
movement sets an interpretive puzzle. A gloomy little march gets interrupted
by a manic section of twittering birds, returns, and then returns with
the avian commentary. The commentary on the march means that Beethoven
links the two ideas and challenges the player to find a convincing relation
between the two. It takes a bit of psychological imagination. Backhaus
merely plays the notes -- beautifully, but with no sign that he's actually
understood the score. The scherzo goes well enough. Backhaus creates jewel-like
runs in the rondo finale. However, he fails to distinguish sufficiently
Beethoven's orchestral writing as different "sections" (represented
by different ranges of the piano) contribute to the musical argument. To
me, Backhaus falls prey to blandness, as if the music were all at one emotional
pitch. In my mind, Beethoven thinks in extreme contrasts and jagged edges.
He doesn't really need Backhaus's suavity, although most likely his admirers
would call the pianist's approach "elegantly classical."
Beethoven fills the Sonata No. 16 with jokes, some of them quite crude, à la the Stooges. The first movement juxtaposes a pianist who can't co-ordinate
his hands to hit a clean chord with fiendishly difficult runs. The second
movement sends up the elaborate-to-kitschy ornamentation of bel canto opera.
The third movement jumps about like Punch, with plenty of unexpected syncopations
and gaps in the musical line and, at the end, the return of the klutzy
pianist at the breakneck coda. Backhaus gets none of the humor of the first
movement. In the second, he does give back Beethoven's little staged opera
-- soprano, bass, duets, and ensembles, with comment from the pit band
-- but it's so serious in tone, probably due to the incredible beauty of
the melody. Those who complain that Beethoven couldn't write a tune have
no idea what they're talking about. The finale provides Backhaus with another
excuse for farragoes of finger-work, but in general the heavy tone Backhaus
assumes obliterates all traces of Papageno. We get very little of Beethoven's
wit, mainly, I think, because Backhaus thinks everything Beethoven wrote
Profound with a capital P. He doesn't give the composer enough credit.
Halfway through his cycle of 32 sonatas, Beethoven decided that he hadn't
produced up to the level he expected and resolved to apply himself. The
composer's disparagement included works like the "Pathétique" and
the "Moonlight," so he probably treated himself a
With "The Tempest," he consciously tried to create something
astonishing, to open up new expressive realms. The score bristles with
expressive markings, more than most Beethoven sonatas, indicating that
the composer tried to give the performer as much interpretive help as he
could. For once, the sonata's nickname actually comes from Beethoven himself.
Asked about the sonata's meaning, the composer said that one could find
it in Shakespeare's play but declined to elaborate, thus giving rise to
a another cottage industry to occupy critics and musicologists. Backhaus,
contrary to my expectations, gives a marvelously nuanced performance, generally
speaking, with only a few lapses. He gives more than his usual attention
to the composer's marks, especially in the first movement. However, some
repeated figures, clearly meant as a crescendo since they rise to successively
higher registers and thicken in texture, are attacked at the outset so
loudly Backhaus has nowhere to go and resorts to banging. The second movement,
one of Beethoven's most beautiful -- a tension of occasional dissonance
against soft chords -- gets a somewhat cold treatment. But Backhaus has
company; even Schnabel falls short in roughly the same way. In the finale,
misleading labeled "Allegretto," the tempest makes its way.
I like Backhaus here. He refrains from banging and yet manages to convey
the fury of the movement.
The sound quality of any reconstruction is limited by the state of the
originals. The greatest audio wizard eventually must choose between enhancing
and violating the original. In some of these recordings, buzz clings to
the louder notes, thus accentuating any actual banging or even creating
bang where none exists.
I've always regarded the Sonata No. 18 as one of Beethoven's most subversive,
despite a deceptively modest surface. He fills it with little jokey surprises,
none of which Backhaus seems to get. He clarifies Beethoven's deliberate
blurring of rhythm in the first movement. In the third-movement minuet,
he dulls the sharp contrast between the relatively staid main strain and
the manic, leaping trio. Again, it's as if he's just playing the notes
as beautifully as he can, without any real intention behind them.
Sonatas 19 and 20, even more modest than their older sib, resemble more
Romantic character-pieces rather than a movement in even a Haydn sonata.
Here, Backhaus's elegant approach serves him well. The minuet which closes
No. 20 (the theme of which comes from Beethoven's Septet) is harder than
it looks, as far as interpretation goes. The main strain comes back with
no or minimal change, and the pianist must figure out how to vary each
occurrence. Backhaus gives the effect of natural elegance, as if the problem
No. 21, the "Waldstein," happens to be the first Beethoven
piano sonata I ever heard beyond the "Moonlight" and
the "Pathétique." I
remember how it gripped me from the beginning when I first heard it.
Schnabel sat at the keyboard, and in the half-century since I first lowered
needle onto the grooves, he has remained my benchmark. I've heard other
performers since who have equaled him, but I keep returning to Schnabel.
Truth to tell, I dreaded to hear what Backhaus would make of it, and
he surprised me with one of the great "Waldsteins." He
generally views Beethoven in a way I have little sympathy for -- Beethoven
the Übermensch -- but his reading here actually shows a
great deal of penetration. In other words, the view succeeds, filled
with forethought rather than hot
air. The opening movement is both powerful and rhythmically elastic.
In the short adagio, nocturnal horns call and answer, and the poet communes
with ineffable powers. However, the rondo finale impresses me the most.
With each recurrence of the main theme, Backhaus surprises you, and the
surprises are individual, but not bizarre. Also, too many pianists tend
to treat the episodes as so much railroad track between the depots of
main theme. Backhaus spends much of his consideration on these and elevates
them to an unusual and well-deserved prominence. It reminds me of watching
the moving parts of a locomotive. A beautiful reading, not only one of
the strongest in the set, but among outstanding "Waldsteins." This
performance started me thinking that maybe Backhaus fans weren't crazy
Sandwiched between the "Waldstein" and the "Appassionata," Sonata
No. 22 seems at first glance a pebble next to a mountain. When you hold
it to the light, however, you discover a sapphire. Beethoven's invention
runs pretty full here. The first movement begins as a staid minuet, interrupted
by a manic outburst. Backhaus doesn't contrast the sections as much as
some, but he does so sufficiently. The second (and final) movement recalls
the Baroque toccata, Domenico Scarlatti in particular. It fits Backhaus's
technique like a Saville Row suit. Beyond that, however, Backhaus shapes
the runs and thus gives intention to the movement, which in other hands
can degenerate into mere notes. One of the better performances in the
Sound quality varies. Unfortunately, the least attractive sound belongs
to the "Waldstein," and in some of the others, you can hear an
omnipresent "swish." These defects come from the original recordings.
Still, compared to some digital transcriptions of older recordings, these
have cleaned up fairly well.
I've never cared particularly for the "Appassionata," No. 23,
and have no good reason to offer. Beethoven obviously put a lot into it.
Its three movements usually evoke in my mind images of a hurricane: two
storms separated by a lull. Although you can hear warmer players, Backhaus
stands out in the first movement for his grasp of the architecture and
masterful shaping of the piece. The second movement, an nearly-straightforward
set of variations on a hymn-like theme according to Classical conventions,
Backhaus handles straightforwardly. I wish he had dug a little deeper,
especially in exploiting the different characters of the left-hand and
right-hand music, but he does indeed distinguish them. The variations end
with a return to the mood of the beginning and an end on a diminished chord,
which Beethoven insistently repeats and which leads directly to the third
movement. This bold stroke Backhaus smoothes over, as if he can't wait
to flash those fingers again -- my one major complaint about the performance.
The third movement itself starts out wonderfully well. Beethoven marks
the tempo "Allegro ma non troppo" (fast, but not too fast).
He does this to contrast with a presto coda. In other words, after you're
sure he can't possibly wring any more excitement, the coda gives the
another shot of adrenalin. Backhaus manages the allegro, but fails to
provide sufficient immediate contrast with the coda. Still, it's a stunning
Sonata No. 24, "À Thérése," Beethoven dedicated
to a pupil, yet another candidate for the "Immortal Beloved," a
figure who's moved no closer to identification since Beethoven's death,
although that doesn't dampen the cottage industry grown up around her.
As we have seen, Beethoven tends to follow his monumental sonatas with
modest ones. This one has two movements, one gentle, one zany. Backhaus
begins the first almost like a love-letter, tender and ardent by turns.
However, the music soon pushes those boundaries, and this tempts some
pianists to theatricality. Backhaus resists the lure of inflation and
at something emotionally deep. Judging by how he takes the second movement,
Beethoven's humor seems to in general elude Backhaus. That some of the
wit can't help but come through stems entirely from Beethoven, rather
than Backhaus, who can't comprehend that a noble soul can't also dig
After the "Appassionata," Beethoven's next few sonatas emphasized
lyricism. No. 25 sings a pastoral song. The first movement is a fast, "German" waltz,
with a chorus of cuckoos as the second strain. Even though I wish he
would unbutton more, Backhaus handles the movement elegantly, with clear
and beautiful, seamless diminuendos. I'd say the same for the slow-aria
second. The third movement dances a Haydnesque caprice, with unforeseeable
gags and twitches. Controversy surrounds it. H. F., the 1951 Gramophone reviewer of the original LP, wanted it taken faster. I want it a hair slower,
while keeping its wacky character. At any rate, Backhaus does as well as
No. 26, "Les adieux" (or "Lebewohl" or "Farewell"),
has the most obvious program of any Beethoven sonata. When Napoleon's
armies headed toward Vienna, the aristocracy fled, including the Archduke
Beethoven's friend (his very good friend, since the composer also dedicated
to him the "Archduke" Trio, the Fourth and Fifth piano
concertos, and the Missa Solemnis). The work has three movements: "Lebewohl" (farewell), "Abwesenheit" (absence),
and "Wiedersehen" (return). The titles determine the characters
of the movements. Even more than in the Pastoral Symphony, Beethoven
eschews pictures for moods -- how he feels, rather than what happened.
handles the opening well, without the cheesy sentimentality one finds
in many accounts. However, he plods a little in the ensuing allegro.
his habit of beginning a new section a bit gingerly and gradually revving
up. Sometimes, I admit, it's quite effective. Here, he crosses the line
into mannerism, as if he's afraid of leaving his back shoe stuck in the
mud. The "Absence" is less a movement than a transition, which
I don't think Backhaus understands. The music consists of turning from
one fragment to the next, contradictory moods and harmonic unsettledness.
Backhaus doesn't give me the "up-in-the-airiness" I want to hear.
He plays it way too straight. This dampens the sudden elation of the "Return," although
I love Backhaus's contrapuntal clarity here, so often lost in others'
I must add that this CD has some of the best sound of the set: clear
piano tone, less "fuzz" on loud high notes, and a very "rounded" ambience.
Many writers put the Sonata No. 27 into Beethoven's late period, but to
me it shows few of those characteristics -- formal fluidity, cranked-up
counterpoint, flirtation with architectural breakdown. It has two short
movements. The first begins abruptly and gruffly and then melts into a
soft, sad answer. The second, a sonata-rondo, plays with one of Beethoven's
noblest themes. The first movement to me emphasizes mystery, the second
beautiful singing. Backhaus does well, but I've heard better performances
-- more mysterious first movements, more lyrical seconds.
With No. 28, we really do arrive at Beethoven's late period. You can
hear at least the next two generations of Germanic composers in it. Wagner
this as his favorite Beethoven sonata, and you can see why. The first
movement, lovely and lyrical, nevertheless seldom comes to harmonic rest.
phrases keep getting extended way beyond the Classical norm, so that
I think this the seed of Wagner's "endless melody." The tripartite
second movement begins as a Schumannesque march, nervously energetic, and
Beethoven loads it with lots of counterpoint, including stretto. The trio
abruptly switches off the taut rhythms of the march and becomes something
Schumann would have labeled "mit tiefster Empfindung." Nevertheless,
the counterpoint never really lets up. Another interesting feature of the
trio is that it too falls into three parts. The third movement harkens
back to the "Waldstein," in that it provides an exploratory
transition from the second to the fourth. Its themes hearken back to
Some commentators have found similarities to Bach's Musikalisches Opfer,
which I don't find far-fetched. Beethoven did know at least some of Bach's
music and scribbled Bachian fragments in this notebooks, and you will
hear the seeds of early Wagner, especially in the frequent recourse to
The composer goes from one idea to the next until, out of the blue, you
hear the opening theme of the entire sonata. He then pares the theme
to two notes and trills on them, winding up for the rondo finale, a contrapuntal
extravaganza, with the main device stretto, where another voice takes
an idea before the first has finished with it. The main idea incorporates
stretto, an Beethoven piles stretto upon stretto, apparently trying to
find the limit beyond which no one can go. Other episodes are relatively
straightforward, if fanciful. My favorite is a Puckish phrase that occasionally
sticks out its tongue from behind a tree. The development has much in
common with Beethoven's monothematic movements, in that most of the episodes
the main idea. Beethoven works his way up to a fugue based on the main
rondo idea, beginning in the depths of the piano's bass register. We
return gradually to "normal," and a wonderful coda, which keeps
you on the edge of your chair, closes out.
I think this one of Backhaus's best. I've heard more exploratory performances,
but this surely must stand at the head of the line of mainstream Beethoven,
and it's masterfully played, with all the glorious counterpoint clean and
On the other hand, Backhaus's "Hammerklavier" (No. 29) has significant
problems, in that he ignores too many of Beethoven's markings, especially
true of the first movement, which he fails to take at the indicated speed.
He's not alone. Many pianists do the same, because the thing is near-impossible
to play at the specified tempo. However, Backhaus plods and bangs, despite
some lovely moments -- notably the fugal passage. Generally, the movement
becomes hectoring, rather than heroic. The second movement is one of Beethoven's
rhythmic jokes, in that it begins with a strong accent on the upbeat, so
that eventually you come out "wrong-footed." The trio consists
of a quasi-canon leading to a czardás. Backhaus, who apparently
never heard a joke he got, smoothes things over. The slow movement, however,
is Backhaus's meat -- somber and yearning at the same time -- and he
gives one of the finest renditions I've heard.
Bach strongly influenced Beethoven's late period. Counterpoint becomes
the normal texture, which Beethoven allies with his technique of imitating
opposing orchestral sections, and Beethoven remakes the fugue from the
Classical evocation of archaic ritual by tying fugal procedures to the
dramatic dynamism of his sonatas. Where the former aims at stability, Beethoven
threatens to blow the music to chaos. The finale takes the form of slow
introduction and fugue, where the intro plays with Bach-like themes (including
a quote of something from the St. John Passion), again trying
to settle on something to get started. I've written elsewhere, " It's as if
you're watching a History of Earth, from a bubbling chaotic soup to an
ordered creation," trying to describe the task building (and failing
to build) something solid from thematic molecules. A trill leads to the
fugue -- one of Beethoven's greatest -- as if the composer has suddenly
hit on something. He hits that trill and peels rubber. Indeed, the trill
gets incorporated into the fugal subject and all by its lonesome assumes
great structural importance. Furthermore, Beethoven shows off with all
sorts of "learned" counterpoint, like subject inversion, subject against inversion in tight stretto, and so on.
Backhaus, unfortunately, mostly blusters and bangs his way through. The
counterpoint gets obliterated. He shows no understanding of the function
of the trill. Considering that this is perhaps Beethoven's most virtuosic
piano sonata, I had high hopes. But fingers need ideas behind them.
The restored sound quality of the CD is fine, apparently due to producer
Andrew Rose's heroic efforts. At any rate, the sonic messes, such as they
are, result entirely from Backhaus's hands.
Coming between the gigantic "Hammerklavier" and the
A-flat major sonata, No. 30 tends to get overlooked and underestimated.
it with innovations, even on a smaller scale, many of which get picked
up by later composers. The opening movement, for example, is Mendelssohnian
fancy before the fact, although in an abbreviated sonata form. It leads
directly to a furious scherzo. The final movement consists of a theme
with six variations, with touches evoking Baroque practice, Bach in particular.
The theme itself is a sarabande, just like the theme of Bach's Goldbergs,
and the fifth variation is a fugato, and the finale restates the quiet
theme (again, like the Goldbergs). This plays against most variation sets
of the time, where the idea was to wow the listener at the end with the
most brilliant variation of all.
Backhaus lacks luster here. He plays the first movement leadenly. The
second movement has an effective crudeness, but Backhaus fails to make
Beethoven's "orchestration" of
successive entrances of the same material clear and his banging covers
the rather intricate counterpoint. The third movement, "Andante molto
cantabile ed espressivo" (slowly, with great singing and expression)
comes off best, although at times the legato singing sinks into ponderousness.
Nevertheless, the movement as a whole coheres very well.
Piano Sonata No. 31 may well be my favorite of the cycle, although please
don't ask for reasons, because I really have none, and it's not all that
smart to pit one Beethoven masterpiece against another. As in much of
late Beethoven, the first movement -- cantabile -- redefines sonata form.
this case, the composer seems to merge variation and sonata. Furthermore,
certain elements in the first movement have consequences throughout the
entire sonata. For example, the first three measures as well as the last
measure feature a sequence of rising fourths, which will come to apotheosis
in the final movement. Minimal and even non-existent pauses between movements
emphasize this unity, as well as provide dramatic contrast. After the
soft strains of the first movement die away, we get a gargoyle of a scherzo
(beginning on the chord the previous movement ended on), leaping this
and that. The scherzo peters out into an exploratory passage, where the
composer seems to grope for an idea to use, and eventually a lamenting
aria. It also quotes "Es ist vollbracht" from Bach's St.
John Passion. Beethoven suffered from serious illness at this time, and commentators
have seen this sonata as either a thanksgiving for recovery or a resolution
to meet his Maker with dignity and grace. This leads to a fugue based on
the rising fourths of the first movement, one of Beethoven's noblest. After
a grand statement and a cadence, the fugue disintegrates back to the mournful
aria and then another groping passage. The fugue steals back in, this time
with the subject upside-down as well as rightside-up and toward the end
takes on the dynamism of sonata.
Backhaus plays at his best. The opening movement is smooth and lyrical
where it needs to be. The extreme dynamic contrasts of the scherzo are
well-managed. However, in the last movement, he steps up his game. This
is as fine a performance of the movement as I know. The recitatives and
the arias sing; the counterpoint is clear, free of Backhaus's often too-percussive
attack. I think this movement fits Backhaus's conception of Beethoven the
Classic like a suit on Daniel Craig.
Critics often write about the metaphysical significance of Sonata No.
32 as Beethoven's Last Piano Sonata, but I doubt that Beethoven actually
it was his last one. True, years lay between this work and his death,
but he had gaps of many years in his sonata output before. It consists
movements. The first, a zany knockabout marked "Maestoso -- Allegro
con brio ed appassionato", begins grandly in the manner of a French
overture and then grimaces and capers. The main theme gets introduced like
a fugal subject, but Beethoven surprises us with an allegro instead, featuring
his "orchestral" writing. That is, successive entries of the
same material appear in different registers and, in imaginative readings,
different keyboard colors, like different sections of the orchestra answering
one another. As part of the development, the composer gives us a fugal
treatment of the theme, after all. The second movement -- "Arietta:
Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile" (arietta: very slowly, simple
and singing) -- is yet another variation set and a great contrast with
the first movement. There, we're in the throes of a sugar rush. Here,
we proceed from a place of calm. The set's form isn't strict: Beethoven
fantasia-like interludes and appends a coda.
No other way to say it -- Backhaus disappoints. He gets the "Maestoso" opening
-- it's pretty maestoso -- but misses the brio of the allegro. He takes
it too slow and too ponderously. He simply doesn't get Beethoven's rough
humor. The "orchestral" writing gets lost because of his sin
of pounding, as if volume and percussive attack equaled power. Furthermore,
despite enchanting moments in the variations, he seems to get lost. I
miss the sense of architecture. He subjects too many variations to the
The recorded sound on the disc comes off as pretty darn good. Andrew Rose,
the remasterer, attributes this mainly to the quality of the originals.
The sound is bright and clear, and the fuzz that clings to the high notes
pounded out -- a common trait of this cycle -- has dwindled to barely-noticeable.
Overall, I think Backhaus fans should appreciate this set. As you can tell,
I found him variable, almost wacky, with interpretations ranging from clueless
to superb, although his technique always impressed me.
S.G.S. (November 2012)