Wilhelm Backhaus / Lili Kraus / Artur Rubinstein

Great Pianists, Vol. 1

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Here's a strong entry in the historical recording field, with decent remasterings of a trio of superb concert performances apparently broadcast on the radio. One might raise the issue that a historical reissue ought to spell out the original recording circumstances a bit, but the reader learns only that the recordings were "made available by courtesy of Claudio von Förster," who also wrote the elegant booklet notes. A striking feature of the program is that two of the three pianists spent time in concentration camps during World War II and that the one who was a Polish Jew, Artur Rubinstein, escaped that fate. Lili Kraus was seized by Japanese forces during a concert tour of what is now Indonesia and imprisoned for three years and Wilhelm Backhaus refused to perform with Furtwängler's Berlin Philharmonic during the war and was incarcerated but later released. All three recordings give excellent examples of the styles of three pianists who would have been well known in the early LP era but who have, except for Rubinstein, faded somewhat from view. The Apollonian cool of Backhaus' Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, with the New York Philharmonic, is especially bracing to modern ears accustomed to pianists who seek everywhere to assert their own personalities in the work. Kraus' reading of the Weber Konzertstück for piano and orchestra in F minor is fleet, liquid, and light in spirit, an absolute delight recorded in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1939, prior to the outbreak of war. And the Rubinstein performance of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, another New York Philharmonic recording from around 1953, is a thrill-a-minute ride that gives a very good idea of why even listeners who encountered concert music only minimally tended to be transfixed by the energy of Rubinstein's performances. The producers have not tried to eliminate the coughs and other crowd noise, especially present in the Backhaus performance. This is all to the good, for the fidelity and lack of hiss in these decades-old recordings is remarkable, and they were best left alone. A strong choice for those interested in any of the performers, or for anyone wanting a taste of the historical-reissue category.

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