After regular studies in the Leipzig Conservatory and an advanced course with a pupil of Liszt, Eugène d'Albert, Backhaus played in Germany and England and at twenty-one won the Anton Rubinstein Competition that was held in Paris in 1905.
One of his opponents was Béla Bartók, who said of the winner "actually sounds very good", while observing a bit acidly "plays Bach's Fugues with the metronome", that is mechanically.
Backhaus' first recordings date back to 1908, three years after winning the competition; they tell us that his performances were not mechanical at all, but they were rhythmically much more regular than was usual at the time.
At twenty-four, Backhaus was an innovator who made appear a new era, the modern era, in advance of about a decade.
Bartók made a big mistake, as everyone who classified Backhaus among the "great academics": a solid musician and an infallible performer who was denied the artist's creative spark.
Backhaus, whose performance of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 106 left amazed, could just as easily
have disengaged himself in the vaporous and perfumed Waltz of Gounod's Faust, which achieved
an amazing sales success.
But after 1930 Backhaus, while keeping the fabulous security of his fingers intact, limited his
repertoire to the German authors, from Bach to Brahms and ... changed his skin.
His dry declamation gradually resumed the characters of the fluent, flexible and exhibited rhetoric of his teacher d’Albert; with his last interpretative lesson, in the sixties, he became the forerunner.... of the postmodern.
Backhaus became a forerunner who sniffed the turn of history.
In Lugano, Switzerland, on April 27, 1961, he was in an evening of grace: he played like a lion, full of life despite having seventy seven years of age and sixty of hard work.
He found the physical pleasure of someone who leaves home early in the morning, on a beautiful day, with the sparkling air that tickles his face and the bright sky that fills his eyes.
On that day, Backhaus was happy with life.
And on that day, I believe, he felt that in Beethoven, when Austria was conquered and humiliated by France, the utopia of Joy was born, a transcendental hope to which men could have looked with confidence.
That evening the utopia of Joy permeated all the performance of the "Emperor"...