Reviews

GHCD 2349 – Great Pianists – Vol. 1, 1939-1956

Wilhelm Backhouse – piano, New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Guido Cantelli

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Fanfare Magazine September / October 2010

All of the performances on this potpourri disc have been issued before. The Beethoven is in print on the Profil and Andromeda labels. The Weber originally appeared on CD 1 of the 14-CD Q -Disc anthology of historic Concertgebouw Orchestra performances from 1935-50 and has now been issued separately on a single CD on the Audiophile Classics label. Archipel, Aura, Nuova Era, and Originals all previously issued the Rachmaninoff; of these only the Archipel issue (a two-CD set devoted to de Sabata) is in print. Only the Weber has previously been noted in Fanfare; in 28:1 James H. North briefly lauded it in reviewing the Q-Disc set.
While the Weber is a unique item, both as a historic recording by the performers and as a rare repertoire item, the other performances have more competition. There are no fewer than six other versions of the Beethoven with Backhaus presently in print: the 1930 studio recording with London Ronald and the London Symphony (reviewed by Christopher Abbott in 21:5 and Barry Brenesal in 25:4); the 1951 studio recording with Clemens Krauss and the Vienna Philharmonic; the 1958 stereo remake with Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and the Vienna Philharmonic; a 1950 radio broadcast with Karl Böhm and the RIAS Symphony (reviewed by Mortimer H. Frank in 33:5); a 1967 live performance on DVD with Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic (reviewed by Jerry Dubins in 30:4); and a 1962 live performance on DVD with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic. There are two other performances of the Rachmaninoff with Rubinstein in print: the 1946 studio recording with Vladimir Golschmann and the NBC Symphony, and the 1956 studio recording with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.
Given this cornucopia of offerings, the key questions are whether these performances are preferable to the alternatives, and how the sound of this issue compares to those of previous issues. Regarding the Weber, I second North’s estimate of this as a wonderful performance; unfortunately, the sound quality (superb for its era) is distinctly inferior to the authorized releases, having a clotted, muddy bass. With respect to the Rachmaninoff, the Reiner collaboration is of course a highly esteemed classic, and as a studio effort naturally has far superior sound. That said, this performance is of great interest. Although the upper frequencies are somewhat muffled, the sound quality is fairly good for its time (I was unable to compare it with previous CD issues), and de Sabata is an impassioned podium presence, lending Italian fire and lyricism to the proceedings. Rubinstein responds with playing that is lighter in touch and more fleet than with Reiner, though some may feel that the famous 18th variation is taken a bit too fast and loses something of its lushness. Still, any fan of Rubinstein will want to acquire this performance, and I am very pleased to have it.
As for the Backhaus, I must plead ignorance, not having heard more than snippets of any of the other performances aside from the 1951 version with Krauss (afflicted with poor conducting and worse recorded sound); the reviews cited above will orient the reader well to his interpretive art. He has never been one of my favorite pianists; while I respect the integrity of his playing, it has always struck me as somewhat stiff and a bit cut and dried, lacking in rubato and dynamic shading, and given to abrupt tempo shifts. Likewise, Cantelli’s more classical approach to Beethoven is not my preference either, for similar reasons. Nevertheless, after several listenings I came to appreciate the merits of this performance. Backhaus opens the work with little poetry, but he responds aptly to Cantelli’s surprisingly weighty (though not slow) treatment of the orchestral accompaniment; conductor and soloist are clearly simpatico in their interpretative goals, sober in outlook and preferring finely chiseled phrasing to lyrical sweep. Again, the sound quality for its time is quite fine, if a bit harsh, and the sound here is at least as good as on the Profil issue. So if you area Backhaus or Cantelli aficionado, or a fancier of historic performances who likes his Beethoven interpreted more classically than romantically, this issue will attract you.
The booklet notes are attractively written, and as a one-disc miscellany of historic live performances of famous pianists with orchestra this issue would be hard to better. If the performers here attract you, then give this a try.
James A. Altena

MusicWeb International Tuesday February 23 2010

Boredom is not on the agenda
There’s no especial logic at work, no alchemical organising principle that conjoins these three performances, other than the fact that the series rubric says it all. As an umbrella title I think ‘Great Pianists’ says it nicely, though I can imagine that pianophiles, second only to Vocal Art Specialists, surely, in their feline acerbity will have something to say about it. Let’s not worry too much about them. Let’s worry about the music.
We don’t lack for examples of Backhaus’s Beethoven on disc but we should be cavalier in the extreme were we to turn away from the meeting between this discographic pioneer and the incendiary Cantelli. The meeting between the two seems to have been one of agreeing minds if this performance is representative. That’s to say it’s not at all the kind of disastrous meeting that Cantelli had with Heifetz – their live Mendelssohn concerto is something of a fiasco – and the one he apparently had with Solomon. The ensemble is watertight, the direction sympathetic without being over-courtly, and the recorded balance very reasonable indeed. Backhaus is on excellent form. He is technically and interpretatively from the top drawer here – leonine, masculine, purposeful, expressive, powerfully persuasive, tonally subtle, and with a magnificent first movement cadenza. This is the kind of playing that has one listening anew. His control in the slow movement is eloquence itself, his projection has oases of interior introspection; the whole is the product of long experience and unimpeachable authority. Once into the finale the thematic play of left and right hands proves arresting – he always has interesting phrasal things to say – and the vitality and drama prove irresistible. This is a marvellous performance from a pianist then, and now, too often taken for granted.
The same can never be said of Rubinstein, whose stewardship of his own repertoire was of so long a duration, and whose esteem only grew over the decades. He essays the Rachmaninov Paganini variations, a work he recorded commercially. He again proves himself a lissom, no-holds-barred interpreter of this particular muse. He finds a somewhat unlikely ally in De Sabata. Rubinstein certainly breathes Grendel-like fire into the variations but it is all a bit hectic, as it was often to be in his forays into Rachmaninov’s music. The occasionally daemonic moments are exciting but a little too calculated to appeal to the bejewelled stalls and gallery. There is certainly magisterial power here, for sure, but not quite the concomitant repose and grace under fire.
The pre-War live performance of Weber’s Konzertstück is in the safest of hands in Lili Kraus, and she is partnered by the impregnable Monteux at the head of the Concertgebouw forces. The sound is good for 1939 and the frequency response impressive. Kraus plays with all her expected imperturbable dynamism.
So, whatever criterion one adopts for this triptych of live performances one thing is for sure; boredom is not on the agenda. There is one indisputably great performance – that of Backhaus. There’s an exciting pre-War survival of a glittery showpiece, and a contentious example of Rubinstein operating at white heat.
Jonathan Woolf

Classic Record Collector Spring 2010

There is no doubt that the soloists here fit the “Great Pianists” appellation comprehensively. In the opening tutti of the Beethoven, Cantelli is magnificent, doubtless inspiring Backhaus, whose view of the work is shared by the conductor in that the composer’s dramatic juxtaposition of keys a third apart is emphasised more than its poetic elements – making the concerto a more dramatic work than in many modern-day performances. Backhaus’s passage work is brilliant and brilliantly expressive yet fits entirely within the Overall concept. This is a very great performance, as the spontaneous applause affirms. The Andante con moto is heavy and solemn and the audience is somewhat noisy, and the finale is neither so as fast nor so as brilliant as it can be, although Cantelli infuses the orchestra’s First tutti wich tingling vitality – a genuine Beethoven vivace. The off-air mono recording, warts and all, does not distract from the experience of great music-making.
Monteux shapes the opening orchestral paragraph of Weber’s Konzertstück beautifully, and Lili Kraus brings this once-popular work to life with a clear and genuine Interpretation, in which she underlines the myriad changes of early Romantic moods in this underrated masterpiece.
Rubinstein is the only one of the three pianists who would play all three Works. The Sound in the Paganini Rhapsody is rather muddy but the performance is staggeringly good from the pianist and De Sabata is a superb partner: the second arrival of the Dies Irae (in octaves) is
slightly held back to enormous effect, in contrast to the quicksilver music surrounding it. The tempo relationships of Variation 16 are superbly judged, and the final solo Bars are simply delicious. The nature of these performances more than make up in musicality what they lack in quality of recording.
Robert Matthew-Walker