Old-school Beethoven on unreleased piano tapes

Old-school Beethoven on unreleased piano tapes


norman lebrecht

February 26, 2021

This is Wilhelm Backhaus, a German pianist who made others look lighthearted, liberal and a bundle of fun.

He was favoured by Hitler with a state appointment and cut of all friendships with Jewish musicians, including Alma Rosé with whom he had once been close.

Barely was the Third Reich over than he was back playing Beethoven in Paris, extolled for being untouched by the currents of history. He was said to have a direct line to Beethoven and cultivated a certain image similarity.



  • Edgar Self says:

    Backaus’s enchanting record of “Naila” waltz by Leo Delibes, arranged by Erno von Dohnanyi, shows a lighter side. His playing of these two Beethoven sonatas, not so often heard, stands comparison with his contemporaries Schnabel, Kempff, Edwin Fischer, Elly Ney, and Gieseking.

    I like also his Haydn for Decca, and Nadia Reisenberg’s for Westminster. Many thanks for posting these recital excerpts from Paris radio. .

  • John Borstlap says:

    So, Villaime Backhauss specialized in the music the ethics of which appeared to have been completely lost on him.

    This is a much better performance and, as a bonus, morally unburdened – much more life in the music:


  • David A. Boxwell says:

    When it comes to Beethoven and Hitler adoration, he was no Elly Ney.

  • michael endres says:

    Maybe one should not forget that it was that very Backhaus who recorded (before any other pianist) the complete Chopin Etudes Opus 10 and Opus 25 in 1928, an inspiring recording that holds its ground until today and shows his credentials as a major virtuoso pianist.


    • Alexander T says:

      I concur. He was a wonderful pianist.

    • Alexander T says:

      There is a story that Rubinstein didn’t record the Chopin Studies because of the Backhaus recording.
      He must have realised that he would have come off second best, which he most certainly would have (assuming, of course, that said story is true).

      • BruceB says:

        In his memoir, Rubinstein acknowledges that he didn’t have the technique to play some of the harder ones. I saw an interview from his old age where he sat at the piano and ripped out the opening of the “Winter Wind” etude pretty darn well, so he could probably play that one. I don’t know how they all compare with each other in terms of difficulty.

        Anyway, he said the same thing about a few other pieces he admired; the Prokofiev 3rd Concerto was one (IIRC he was in the audience for the premiere).

  • Alexander T says:

    One of my favourite pianists.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Michael Endres — Thanks for mentioning Backhaus’s pioneering complete Chopin etudes Op. 10/25, which were indeed the first, recorded five years before Alfred Cortot’s. lf I remember right, Bacvkhaus here and there plays chords to modulate from piece to piece, as some old-time pianists did in concert.

    I saw Backhaus only once, playing Beethoven’s fourth and Brahms’s first concerto on a program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and I think Alfred Wallenstein. I also saw Kempff, Cortot, Elly Ney, Gieseking and, almost, Edwin Fischer, some several times. Unfortunately I missed Schnabel.

  • piano fan says:

    Not quite, dear Norman. And Backhaus “finally” moved to Switzerland. He was not Wilhelm Kempff, who played in Nazi-occupied Paris and remained faithful to his Fürher till the end. Even more so in Japan.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Rubinstein played a selection of Chopin’s etudes superbly, for instance in his Moscow recital, and some of the best Beethoven of his time, such as “Appassionata” and “Les Adieux” sonatas. I would like to have had his complete etudes and Cortot’s complete nocturnes, but they were not to be.

    Among later sets of the etudes there is a fine one by Maurizio Baglini. The next sets after Backhaus and Cortot were probably those of Raoul Kozalski and Edward Kilenyi, then Brailowsky, Arrau, and all the rest. Juana Zayas and Pollini have been highly praised.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Backhaus moved to Lugano in 1930, for what reason I don’t know, and became a Swiss citizen but evidently remained an ardent sympathizer of national socialism.