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Wilhelm Backhaus

Wilhelm Backhaus was a German pianist known for his selfless dedication to the composers' intentions. Also a recording pioneer, his 1909 recording of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto is the first known concerto recording. Backhaus was born on March 26, 1884 in Leipzig, Germany. His father was a successful architect, and his mother was an amateur pianist. He started learning the piano at the age of four, first from his mother, and then with Alois Reckendorf at the Leipzig Conservatory from 1891 to 1898. He studied with Eugen d'Albert for a year, and learned the rest on his own. In 1900 he enjoyed a very successful debut performance in England as part of his first tour, which established his reputation as a performer. Later, in 1905, he won the Rubinstein prize, competing against Béla Bartók who earned second place. He also began teaching at the Royal Manchester College of Music, but he never considered himself an educator. His first recording was for the HMV label in 1909 featuring Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, and this was also the very first recording of a concerto. He made several more recordings with HMV in London, but their association temporarily ceased in 1914 with the start of World War I. His American debut was in 1912, where he performed Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall with the New York Symphony Orchestra led by Walter Damrosch. This was the beginning of a series of North American tours, and he continued touring in Europe and the Americas into the 1920s. He also resumed recording in 1916 with Polydor, and with HMV after the war ended in 1918. Backhaus accepted a teaching position at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia from 1925 to 1926, and then gradually moved back to Europe, eventually settling in Switzerland in 1930. He continued recording with HMV until 1947, and then worked with Decca. He made his final appearance in the U.S. in 1954 with a series of critically acclaimed recitals at Carnegie Hall featuring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas. He kept practicing, performing, and recording until his death in 1969, when he was in Austria preparing for a performance. His recorded legacy includes Beethoven's complete sonatas and concertos, and the works of Bach, Mozart, Brahms, and many others. His premiere recording of Chopin's complete etudes from 1928 is still considered to be one of the best.
© RJ Lambert /TiVo
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