Top Ear

Backhaus and Bohm’s Beguiling Brahms

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Jeremy Lee writes

“Ahhhh! Backhaus plays like a twenty-year-old man!”

This was what Leonard said about Backhaus’ Hammerklavier Sonata, recorded live in Carnegie Hall when the pianist was 72, and for once I could fully understand what he was talking about because I could relate to such an amazing musical experience of the evergreen Backhaus with Brahms’ second piano concerto. Recorded in 196x with Bohm and the VPO, this was the last of Backhaus’ three recordings of the piece, and to hear an 83-year-young man playing with such life and energy as if he was in his mid-twenties really proves that you don’t need no Neutrogena or Olay or whatever to turn back the clock of the years. Of course, compared with the earlier recordings Bachkaus’ playing has mellowed down slightly, probably more expressive and reflective in places, but does, say, Marc-André Hamelin’s recording, recorded when he was about half Backhaus’ age, have twice as much energy or stamina? Absolutely not.

As such, Backhaus turns out a performance bubbling with vitality and conviction. In the first movement the delicate thirds and fourths at places are coaxing and comfortable, and when it comes to the difficult runs, cords, octave trills or leaps Backhaus absolutely brings the house down with power, drive, passion and a virtuosity unfaded one bit through the ages. The scherzo starts off boldly and continues with a passionate drive comparable to that of Friere/Chailly, and the adagio is very smooth and dreamy, even rather creamy, and if you like a touch of Viennese whipped cream on your Brahms this one’s for you. The charming yet difficult last movement is one of the most graciously played, and Backhaus highlights small details in the parts unheard anywhere else. Although the downbeats of the F major theme are rather strong–an acquired taste to some–they do not disrupt the flow of the melody unduly. Bohm and the VPO provide a rich and satisfying accompaniment.

The sound is great: clear and with a silky texture throughout though at times may be too thick for some tastes. Incidentally the album shown in the picture is the cover of the international version on Decca Legends with a Mozart filler, while the one I have is a version for the Taiwanese market and has no filler, but is excellently priced at only $55. Of course, you can do better than this one, as Hamelin, Friere, Katchen, Gilels, Arrau or Richter does, but if you’d like to experience a great performance of the piece at budget price, look no further than this one. Warmly recommended.


  • Album name:  Brahms:  Piano Concerto No. 2;  Mozart:  Piano Concerto No. 27
  • Performers:  Wilhelm Backhaus (piano); Karl Bohm (conductor); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Label:  Decca Legends 0289 466 3802 6
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  77:43

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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