Backhaus Beethoven Edition. Volume 1. Sonata No. 1 in f, op. 2/1. Sonata No. 2 in A, op. 2/2. Sonata No. 3 in C, op. 2/3. Sonata No. 4 in E-flat, op. 7.
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM051 TT: 79:27.

Backhaus Beethoven Edition. Volume 2. Sonata No. 5 in c, op. 10/1. Sonata No. 6 in F, op. 10/2. Sonata No. 7 in D, op. 10/3. Sonata No. 8 in c, op. 13 "Pathétique." Sonata No. 9 in E, op. 14/1.
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM051 TT: 70:08.

Backhaus Beethoven Edition. Volume 3. Sonata No. 10 in G, op. 14/11. Sonata No. 11 in B-flat, op. 22. Sonata No. 12 in A-flat, op. 26 "Marche Funèbre." Sonata No. 13 in E-flat, op. 27/1 "Quasi una fantasia."
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM051 TT: 66:40.


Stupefying perfection. Pristine Audio, fresh off a marvelous Schnabel Beethoven series, now turns its attention to Wilhelm Backhaus and recordings made in the early Fifties. Like Schnabel, Backhaus enjoys an almost cult-like legion of fans, especially for his Beethoven, Chopin, and Brahms. Critics praise him for his devotion to a composer's intentions.

Unfortunately, I've never cared for his work, and I find the terms in which people praise him absolutely baffling. Whatever attractions his playing holds have flown past me. I recognize his superb technique -- jewel-like runs, power without pounding, gorgeous tone -- but also note very little imaginative or penetrating interpretive power. This dichotomy appears in the very first sonata. The opening movement is beautifully played, although a little stolid. Each note sounds clearly and beautifully. You seldom encounter a pianist who has so mastered the mechanics of playing. However, you miss any sense of real understanding. For example, in the third-movement scherzo (marked "Menuetto and Trio -- Allegretto"), what should come across as minimalist counterpoint gets smooshed into one dimension -- ie, all foreground. A MIDI sequencer would produce pretty much the same effect.

On the other hand, Sonatas 2 and 3 come across elegantly and rank among the highlights of the set. Yet even here, in, say, No. 2's "Largo appassionato," Backhaus has moments of plowing through too many passages where each note is distinct at the expense of the overall singing line. Nevertheless, Backhaus brings out inner voices, overall, like no one else, and in the Adagio of No. 3 the essential three-part counterpoint (the soprano, tenor, and bass of an operatic trio) is so distinct, you can almost see the singers on stage.

Sonata No. 4 comes across as schizophrenic. Backhaus brutally tromps through the first two movements but from there achieves real elegance to the end. Yet even the scherzo and the finale fail to grab me beyond the beauty of the playing. One of the things I enjoy about Beethoven's sonatas is the opportunity they give the pianist to present something of his own. I have no idea of Backhaus's viewpoint. It reminds me of looking at a bland portrait of some CEO as opposed to Picasso's painting of Gertrude Stein.

Backhaus to me plays with a certain rhythmic rigidity, as if his fingers, hands, and arms had somehow seized up and few notes connected to the next. Most pianists aim for a singing line. Backhaus tends to treat the piano like a box of hammers, although he on occasion can make it sing beautifully. The Sonata No. 5 hits you without relent, and the dynamic range stays mostly at mezzo-forte and above. There's very little sense of building long architectural spans. Sonata No. 9 is one of the successes of the set, but it's in many ways a set of miniatures. Nos. 6 and 7 aren't bad, and the Pathétique made me marvel at Backhaus's technique. However, nothing really distinguishes these readings from dozens of others, except that the Pathétique is more cleanly played.

So many of Backhaus's readings strike me as "corporate," revealing little of the player or the composer. To me, great interpreters provide an intellectual context for a composer. For example, Schnabel sees Beethoven as a Janus figure, opening up new musical vistas down to the present day and yet looking back to Classical opera and to Haydn. Other pianists emphasize Beethoven's Greek-inspired Romanticism or Beethoven as an elemental musical force, and so on. Backhaus doesn't seem to see Beethoven as anything other than a purveyor of notes.

Nos. 11, 12, and 13 stand out in Backhaus's cycle. A pokey tempo for the first-movement variations of No. 12 and occasional clunks in the musical line in the opening of No. 13 keep both out of the very best, but Backhaus's No. 11 wins over completely -- one of the most finely-played accounts around.

Pristine has cleaned the mono sound, removing tape hiss and correcting variant tape speed, although one occasionally gets a bit of fuzz in the louder passages on isolated chords. Nevertheless, a fine job.

S.G.S. (June 2012)