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APR’s invaluable tribute to Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969) provokes a sea of controversy. Estimates of his playing have always been wildly contradictory (APR’s excellent accompanying notes quote Horowitz, Barenboim, Uchida and Argerich, among others) some rejoicing in a rugged, technically magisterial command, others finding him intimidating and aloof. For one critic he could ‘pin back a Chopin Mazurka by the ears and belabour it unmercifully.’ Associated primarily with Beethoven, Backhaus – unlike Schnabel who despised the lighter virtues – was drawn to Romantic bonnes bouches and you only have to hear him in Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody to find him delighting in a riotous brilliance and theatricality. Yet his way with his legendary set of the Chopin Études has you blowing hot and cold. Opus 10/1 has breadth and dignity (no mere ‘runaway chorale’) but he takes a rough hand to the sparkling cascades of No 8 and is more hefty than loving in the glorious central section of Op 25/5. Again, he is as light and buoyant as you could wish in No 9 (the so-called ‘Butterfly’ Etude) while whipping up an elemental storm in No 11 (‘Winter Wind’). Elsewhere he is graceless and flurried in the first Prelude of Op 28 and his tendency towards supersonic speeds allows too little time for a phrase to tell and breathe. His Mendelssohn Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, arranged by Eric Hutcheson, is a refreshing change from Rachmaninov’s more familiar setting; but he is no elegant white-tie-and-tails dancer in the Delibes/Dohnányi Waltz from Naïla (try Cyril Smith in comparison) and his Chopin Minute Waltz is more an exercise in speed than musicianship.

Backhaus’s Beethoven prompts even greater argument. Fluent and direct in the Fourth Concerto, his playing could perhaps too easily be mistaken for diffi dence, for being ‘on auto-pilot’. But his directness in the Pathétique Sonata is belittling and in Op 111 he rides roughshod over Beethoven’s eloquence. For him a description of the Arietta as like ‘a slow drift towards the shores of Paradise’ is mere quasi-poetic nonsense, a subjective alternative to an art that is essentially sui generis. And yet in his final offering of Bach’s Pastorale from the Christmas Oratorio, arranged by Clarence Lucas (very much in the style of Wilhelm Kempff’s Romantic settings of the Classical and Baroque) you are alerted to a heart of gold beating beneath that mighty if Olympian surface. A point-counterpoint experience, then, though presented with all of APR’s expertise and attention to detail.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2019 - ©Rhinegold Publishing