This 2 CD set contains one of the greatest piano wonders of the XX century - Brahms' Paganini variations, Op. 35, recorded by Wilhelm Backhaus for HMV in one session, on November 19, 1929. Unfortunately, Bryce Morrison's longish essay provides no details about this session and the circumstances of other Backhaus recordings included in this 2 CD-set. From the notes one can figure out that Backhaus was back in HMV studio on December 5, 1932 (Ballades Op. 10 Nos. 1 & 2, Scherzo Op. 4, Ballade Op. 118, No. 3, Intermezzi Op. 118 Nos. 1 & 2, Intermezzo Op. 76, No. 7 & Capriccio Op. 76, No. 8), visited the studio again on December 7, 1932 to record five other Brahms items (three pieces from Op. 118, Nos. 4, 5 & 6, and both Rhapsodies, Op. 79). On March 31, 1933 he recorded three Waltzes from Op. 39 (Nos. 1, 2 & 15). On April 1, 1933 he recorded two Hungarian dances (Nos. 6 & 7). All these items, except for the Paganini variations, are placed on CD 1. After some three years Backhaus made a complete recording of all Waltzes, Op. 39 and added some more Brahms pieces (Intermezzi Op. 119, Nos. 2 & 3, Capriccio Op. 76, No. 2 and Variations on an original theme, Op. 21, No. 1): all this was done during the same session on January 27, 1936. Some days before, on January 9, 1936, Backhaus recorded seven more intermezzi (Op. 116, Nos. 1-4, Op. 117, Nos. 1 & 2, Op. 119, No. 1). All of them are placed on CD 2, in addition to Paganini-variations, Op. 35.
This was the third and last recording of Paganini-variations by Backhaus: the two previous variants made in the acoustic period (1916 & 1925) have mainly a historical interest, but this one, made with a mike, in a very clear `electric' sound, killed many generations of Brahms' pianists. Some of the later virtuosi (I won't give the names here, but some of them were honest enough to admit themselves that they didn't understand Brahms Op. 35 properly or were afraid to play it) dragged the music or tended to transform it into some kind of salon lyrics spiced with tame bravura. But here, in 1929, Brahms' masterpiece got a congenial reading from a superman with an absolute command of the variation form, the technical aspects and a true Brahms style. WB's account spreads an impression of an unlimited human power. Like many great artists in the old opera school, Backhaus does not sing on the maximum throughout the performance, but applies a wide palette of different dynamics and colorings. His mf is poignant and foreboding -- cf. the very first beats of the Theme, Non troppo presto, which immeadeately catch a listener -- and his ff is tremendous. His glissandi in the Vivace e scherzando variation (Book I, No. 13) are dazzling, and his bass chords in the famous Feroce variation (Book II, No. 10) played in ca. 26 seconds (Track 14, 0'24-0'51), are really demonic. Backhaus does not isolate the variations and does not make chopinesque preludes out of them; he is devoid from any hints of self-admiration, though his touch is as usually awesome. He keeps in mind the structure of the whole cycle and preserves the tension: if he is a bit reserved in Vars. 5-6 of Book I, it is because he is preparing an escalation in Vars. 7-8 (the last part of track 11 on CD 2, around 3'17-4'08). Backhaus apparently tried to minimize the transitions from one variation to another: this might partly be due to the recording conditions in 1929, but I think artistic considerations were decisive. He omitted the repeat of the theme in the beginning of Book II and cut the final variation (No. 14) in Book I: as a result, the stormy Var. 1 in Book I rushes immediately after the abridged final variation of Book II (cf. the beginning of track 12 on CD 2), and the musical thread is not interrupted by any digressions. The same connectivity device, to which purists would object, is used on Géza Anda's 1953 mono recording of Paganini-variations (Testament SBT 1068). There are no other cuts or interpolations. Backhaus' tempi are very flexible and change from variation to variation. I measured his timing and compared it with Katchen 1965 (Decca), which is one of the fastest post-war accounts of Brahms, Op. 35. At first Katchen does not play slower, but at the end you see that Backhaus (16'32) is almost four minutes ahead of Katchen (20'20): Katchen also omits the repeat of the theme, but does not cut Var. 14 in Book I. The main trump of Backhaus vs. later pianists is of course *not* that he played faster, but that he could speed up in the culmination to a degree not available for them. And he also could *feel* Brahms' music on such dazzling tempi there, where later champions had to drag the notes!
Comparing this astonishing sound document from 1929 with some later approaches to Op. 35, I can recommend Petri 1937 (now available on the budget label Naxos), studio version with Anda 1953 (Testament), his 1955 live version (BBCL), Cherkassky 1953 (Orfeo) and Katchen 1965 (Decca). Petri is manlike and unsentimental, Anda is hypersensitive and poetic, Katchen has a noble phrasing and profound knowledge of Brahms style, while Cherkassky is brilliant and tricky. But Backhaus has all these virtues - and an absolutely gorgeous touch. His account of the Paganini-variations is not only the fastest from all these, but also the most clearly articulated one. I already mentioned his inhuman tempo in the Feroce variation: but what an effective pause he makes towards its end (Tr. 14 on CD 2, around 0'48-0'50)! It is sad that Backhaus did not rerecord Paganini-variations in a more modern sound, but the very idea to compete with this 1929 recording is frightening.
Not all recordings on this 2CD set are on the same level as Paganini-variations, but some of them are extraordinary by any standard. The complete Waltzes Op. 39 (1936), the Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, No. 1 (1936), the two Hungarian dances (1933), the two first Ballades from Op. 10 and the Scherzo Op. 4 (1932) show the same grandiose pianism. Backhaus LP with these 1932 recordings of the D minor and D major Ballades was my first acquaintance with Op. 10: I found the phrasing very natural and could not understand why other pianists were playing these ballades several minutes slower... And I have never heard by anybody else such a ravishing D minor chord in the last bar of the first Ballade and such rich sonorities in the middle section of the second Ballade.
More inward Brahms' miniatures are, oddly enough, less successful. After the war Backhaus recorded the complete Op. 118 cycle and some pieces from Opp. 76, 116, 117, 119 again: the remakes are available on Andromeda (ANDCD 5043). I prefer later variants in all cases. The same holds for both Rhapsodies, Op. 79 (1932), which sound rather messy. In this case Backhaus left us only one remake - that of the B minor Rhapsody, Op. 79, No. 1 (1956). This is an exceptional recording, which surpasses the 1932 variant in all respects: it is more nuanced, more powerful and even more concise (7'42 vs 7'55). It is astonishing, but in the 1950-s Backhaus didn't play the Intermezzi and Rhapsodies slower than in the 1930-s: yet his interpretations of Brahms' miniatures grew more nuanced and character-like. I guess that two factors were in play. Firstly, Backhaus' approach to Brahms changed during the years, and, secondly, even such a great musician needed more time to adjust to the style of different intermezzi: as I mentioned in the beginning of my review, the most Intermezzi tried by Backhaus in studio in 1932-1936 came from sessions, where he recorded other Brahms' music.
The transfers by Maggie Payne are fine and stand a comparison with good old LPs. In few places there is surface noise and distortions due to worn sources. One such spot is located in the beginning of Paganini-variations (CD 2, Tr. 11, around 0'06): one can imagine, how oft the source was played in the pre-CD period.
The liner notes by Bryce Morrison are written in a florid style. We learn that Backhaus lacked Dame Myra Hess's `seraphic poise and serenity', and that the happier moments in his playing were a `far cry from the traditional view of Backhaus as formidable but detached'. Bryce Morrison also quotes other authorities, as Piero Rattalino, who alleged that `mystical ecstasies and even the inactive contemplation of creation' were foreign to Backhaus' nature, or Abram Hasins, who thought that `Backhaus's gaze didn't reach from earth from heaven when music demanded dramatic utterance, melodic expressivity, and poetic ardour': by the way, one could pick up a more favorable quotation from Abram Hasins, who did Backhaus a justice. I think it were better to add substantial details about the recording sessions or the music itself, instead of this rotten lyrics.
There is one puzzle in the track list of On CD 2: the Intermezzo in E major, Op. 116, No. 4 is repeated twice, as tracks 4 & 9: the second time it is wrongly advertised to be in E minor. One might speculate that these are alternative takes made the same day, January 9, 1936, but this is not indicated: the matrix has the same numbers [HMV DB 2804, Victor 14132].
Despite these marginal shortcomings, this CD set is a must for everyone, who loves Brahms and great piano playing. It does not prevent you from buying later recordings, but the more you listen to its alternatives, the more you will treasure this one.