When thinking of the great German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus, the image of an old master with a large pale forehead often comes to mind, frozen in his somewhat wise and austere performances. With his fierce young Beethoven-like appearance, Backhaus gave his first recital in 1899 while his last concert, by which time he was a respectable old man, took place on July 5 1969, a week before his death. The miraculous advances in recording preserved this brilliant seventy-year-long career, because, unlike his colleagues Rubinstein and Schnabel who shied away from vinyl, Backhaus was one of the pioneers of the medium, having made his first records in 1908.
This album contains all his Beethovenian recordings produced in London before the war. We find extraordinary performances of four sonatas and Concertos No. 4 and No. 5, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Landon Ronald. Recorded in 1927, the Emperor was easy for both the pianist and the orchestra and required few takes. In 1928, Backhaus told the British press that his recording of Concerto no. 5 was the most beautiful thing he would ever make, without knowing that he still had over forty career years ahead of him.
The sessions for the 4th Concerto were very different. Three sessions were needed in September 1929 and two more were added in March 1930 following technical problems. Contrary to the myth that the takes were all unique at the time of the 78 rpm, it took seven or eight of them (the faces lasted two minutes, during which time "no" mistakes were allowed) to complete the work in March 1930, because Backhaus and the musicians – who were probably very tired at this point - were constantly tripping up.
The result is nevertheless stunning, as the rendition is characterised by a breath-taking fluidity. The difficulty of recording at the time was that you could easily lose the tension or tempo from one side of the record to the other. However, Backhaus' winged touch, probably on one of the very light pianos of that time, spins like a spring-time wind.
The rest of this double album is devoted to four sonatas and a few of Bach's Preludes and Fugues. Let us add that the softness and precision of these recordings perfectly illustrates the mastery acquired in a short time by the sound engineers. As with old films, today's restorations allow us to see and hear these testimonies from a distant past in such a quality that our elders would never have thought possible. © François Hudry/Qobuz