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. 81a "Les Adieux".
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

Volume 4.
I'm betwixt and between. Backhaus's pianism continues to flummox me. I acknowledge his superb technique, but often I don't particularly care for 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. Backhaus's 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 car. 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 bit harshly.

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.

Volume 5.
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 doesn't exist.

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 the 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 the 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 after all.

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 cycle.

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.

Volume 6.
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 music another shot of adrenalin. Backhaus manages the allegro, but fails to provide sufficient immediate contrast with the coda. Still, it's a stunning reading over all.

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 thus arrives 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 pies in the face.

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 counterpoint 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 most.

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 Ferdinand, 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. Backhaus handles the opening well, without the cheesy sentimentality one finds in many accounts. However, he plods a little in the ensuing allegro. He indulges 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' excessive pedal.

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.

Volume 7.
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 named this as his favorite Beethoven sonata, and you can see why. The first movement, lovely and lyrical, nevertheless seldom comes to harmonic rest. Melodic 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 the Baroque. 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 appoggiatura. 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 up 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 vary 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 elegant.

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.

Volume 9.
Coming between the gigantic "Hammerklavier" and the A-flat major sonata, No. 30 tends to get overlooked and underestimated. Beethoven packs 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. In 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 way 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 knew 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 of two 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 inserts 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 same treatment.

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)