Diapason d'or -
Gramophone Editor's Choice
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.
Created for His Master’s Voice (HMV) between 1925 and 1935 and carefully restored here, these recordings are mainly devoted to Chopin (with the first complete recording of the Études), Liszt and Schumann. In addition, the second part is reserved for the transcriptions that were popular in those distant times.
While the young Backhaus’ technique is breathtaking, it also teaches us something about musical history. Styles of playing change over the years and no one today would dare to play at such a dizzying speed. It was after the Second World War that pianists became a little more relaxed and began to abandon the sacred "short pieces" to play Beethoven's or Schubert's great sonatas, finding more gravity in keeping with the spirit of the times. The tempos slowed down significantly while the invention of the microgroove made it possible to capture long pieces of music, more favourable to the outpouring of expression than the 78-rpm sides allowed. It is truly touching to return to these recordings that symbolise a world that was lost forever. © François Hudry/Qobuz