Beethoven / Brahms, Piano Concerto / Symphony no.2,
W.Backhaus / K.Böhm / WPh
Brahms Symphonies, Böhm
Beethoven Sonatas, Backhaus
Beethoven Concertos, Backhaus (oop)
The draw of this DVD is, at any rate, the Backhaus performance of the Beethoven concerto, recorded and filmed at the Rosenhügel studios in Vienna. Backhaus was 83 at the time of filming (April 1967) – but his playing does not betray his age… only his musical wisdom. He plays the concerto with immense clarity and a hugely confident, precise touch. There seems to be purpose behind every note; purpose at the service of the music, not his own ego. No unnecessary tone or emotion comes from this man with the impassive face; there is no smudging to improve individual instances that might, as in so many other performances, leave the impression of the whole in a hazy mess. By way of imperfect analogy: Looking closely at Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus it might be tempting to touch up and smoothen the almost crude brush strokes, one at a time. After completing this work, square inch by square inch, the ‘helpful’ restaurateur would likely be shocked when he steps back and sees the grand effect of the original in ruins. Like less-than-refined brush strokes in great painting, an almost barren tone with Backhaus emerges as an essential part of the unadulterated whole.
The liner notes very fittingly describe Backhaus’ look as “nobility but not ‘power’, seriousness without pompousness, devotion with no show of ‘piety’”. I would add – or summarize: A look of humble gravitas. There are two particularly touching, extraordinary moments: After the orchestral tutti of the first movement he gently ‘pre-touches’ the keys he is about to play… a coy reconnection with the concerto before he enters again. Later he is shown with the above described face, playing with his head slightly cocked, calm and at peace… as if searching for the music inside himself. The camera work is excellent. Every member of the crew seemed to know the score by heart – Backhaus’ hands, the focus of most of the shots – are never out of the frame.
It dazzles the mind; it is almost surreal to watch a color DVD of a pianist in performance who pushed his first piano keys long before Brahms, daisies. Call me a romantic… but this kind of visual, visceral connection of the presence (in this case: occasions we remember or remember being told about) with a past we otherwise think of as far, far removed has a profoundly moving effect on me.
Brahms, Symphonies nos. 1 & 3,
L.Bernstein / IPO
Schubert / Brahms, Symphonies nos. 5 & 1, Wand / NDRSO
Schubert 5 / Bruckner 4, Wand
Brahms Symphonies 1-4, Wand
Schubert 9, Wand
If there is a problem with this DVD, it’s perhaps that ‘disappearing act’. Like with Böhm, there is not much that watching Wand conduct can add to the experience of listening to him. Indeed, I find myself distracted and less enthralled seeing Wand than listening to him. (This may also depend on whether you have to listen to DVDs through your TV’s inferior speakers or whether you run the sound through your stereo or high-quality surround system.) Just like with his Schubert Ninth (EuroArts/NDR vs. RCA/BPh), I’d rather turn to his CD performances of either of these works. (His second NDRSO cycle of Brahms is unsurpassed to these ears, ditto above mentioned Schubert Fifth.)