The eminent German-born Swiss pianist and pedagogue, Wilhelm Backhaus [Bachaus], studied at the Conservatory in Leipzig with Alois Reckendorf from 1891 to 1899, making his debut there at the age of 8. In 1899 he took briefly private lessons with Eugen d'Albert in Frankfurt am Main. He made his first concert tour at the age of 16 (1900). In 1905 he won the Rubinstein Prize with Béla Bartók taking second place.
Wilhelm Backhaus began his career with a major tour in 1900 at the age of 16, acquiring a fine reputation in Europe as both a pianist and a teacher. He made his USA debut in January 1912, as soloist in L.v. Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra. He toured widely throughout his life - in 1921 he gave 17 concerts in Buenos Aires in less than three weeks. In 1930 he moved to Lugano, where he continued to teach, and became a naturalised citizen of Switzerland. Following World War II, he resumed his concert tours. He made his last appearance in the USA at a recital in New York in 1962, at the age of 78, displaying undiminished vigour as virtuoso. He died in Villach in Austria where he was to play in a concert.
Wilhelm Backhaus was particularly well known for his interpretations of L.v. Beethoven romantic music such as that by Johannes Brahms. He was also much admired as a chamber musician. According to many critics, Backhaus was one of the first modern artists of the keyboard and played with a clean, spare, and objective style. In spite of this analytic approach, his performances are full of feeling.
One of the first pianists to leave recordings, Wilhelm Backhaus had a long career on the concert stage and in the studio and left us a great legacy. He recorded virtually the complete works of L.v. Beethoven and a large quantity of W.A. Mozart and J. Brahms, and he was also the first to record Frédéric Chopin's etudes, in 1928; this is still widely regarded as one of the best recordings (Pearl and others). Backhaus plays them smoothly and softly, overcoming their technical challenges without apparent effort. A live recording from 1953 includes 7 of the Etudes, Op. 25 and shows the changes that occurred in his playing style over the years (Aura). His technical command is the same, but he is more relaxed and confident and more willing to let the music speaks for itself. His 1939 recording of J. Brahms' Waltzes, Op. 39, runs just over 17 minutes; it is difficult to imagine anyone actually dancing to this version, but it is exhilarating nevertheless (EMI). His studio recordings of the complete L.v. Beethoven sonatas, made in the 1960's, display awesome technique for a man in his seventies (Decca), as do the two J. Brahms concertos from about the same time (Decca). His live L.v. Beethoven recordings are in some ways even better, freer and more vivid (Orfeo). His chamber music recordings include J. Brahms's cello sonatas with Pierre Fournier and Schubert's Trout Quintet with the International Quartet and Charles Hobday.