Wilhelm Backhaus (March 26, 1884 - July 5, 1969) was a German pianist.
Born in Leipzig, Backhaus studied at the conservatoire in Leipzig until 1899, later taking private lessons with Eugen d'Albert. He made his first concert tour at the age of sixteen, and continued to tour widely throughout his life. In 1930 he moved to Lugano and became a citizen of Switzerland. He died in Villach in Austria where he was to play in a concert.
Backhaus was particularly well known for his interpretations of Ludwig van Beethoven and Romantic music such as that by Johannes Brahms. He also played chamber music, and made recordings of the Brahms cello sonatas with Pierre Fournier.
Backhaus was one of the first modern artists of the keyboard (see Alfred Cortot for his antithesis) 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, he had a long career on the concert stage and in the studio and left us a great legacy. Generally associated with Beethoven and Brahms, he was also the first to record the Chopin etudes, in 1927; this is still widely regarded as one of the best recordings (Pearl 9902 and others). Backhaus plays them smoothly and softly, overcoming their technical challenges without apparent effort. A live recording from 1953 includes seven of the Opus 25 etudes and shows the changes that occurred in his playing style over the years (Aura 119). His technical command is the same, but he is more relaxed and confident and more willing to let the music speak for itself.
His 1939 recording of Brahms's Waltzes, Opus 39, runs just over thirteen minutes; it is difficult to imagine anyone actually dancing to this version, but it is exhilarating nevertheless (EMI 66425). His studio recordings of the complete Beethoven sonatas, made in the 1960s, display awesome technique for a man in his seventies (Decca 433882), as do the two Brahms concertos from about the same time (Decca 433895). His live Beethoven recordings are in some ways even better, freer and more vivid (Orfeo 300921).