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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 14 in D minor D.810 Death and the Maiden (1824) [33:06];
String Quartet No. 15 in G major D.887 (1826) [39:58]
Busch Quartet (Adolf Busch; Gösta Andreasson (violins); Karl Doktor (viola); Hermann Busch, (cello))
rec. 16 October 1936 (D.810); 22, 30 November 1938, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London (D.887). ADD MONO.
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 3615882 [73.33]



Quite what I can add to the comments that have been lavished on these recordings over the years, I do not really know. I can merely affirm that these are readings worthy of their “Great Recordings” labelling. Anyone seriously interested in Schubert string quartets should have this disc in their collection.
 
Of course, not all old recordings are worth listening. Their inferior sound quality, of course, counts against them. But then again some modern recordings are compromised by the exactness of their sound, which fails to capture the ambience along with the musical notes.
 
These vintage EMI recordings offer plenty of atmosphere, and I am grateful that Andrew Walter’s remastering has preserved a touch of hiss from the originals that can be heard if one turns up the volume.
 
In the D.810 quartet, the sound balance is near ideal in capturing the group’s rich and sonorous bass line, mellow alto and variously soft and incisively sharp violin parts. The opening Allegro has a natural rhythmic flow with the work’s dramatic façade established from the first. As Tully Potter comments in his excellent accompanying notes this is music of “heroic scale and […] anger” that was “largely overlooked by a public fed on the image of the composer as a happy-go-lucky Biedermeier figure”.  Listen, for example, how the Busch quartet bring out the Allegro’s crucial point of angst at around ten minutes into the movement. It not only seems rightly called for, but a consequence of all that has gone before. 
 
The long-breathed Andante con moto benefits immeasurably from the unforced dynamics and interplay of the four players. There may be tiny moments of suspect intonation that creep into the performance. Given that these recordings come from an era that regarded such things as negligible it is rather our problem if we cannot adjust to and accept this aspect as part of the whole experience. Only when playing at a real forte do the instruments sound crowded, otherwise their tone is delicately preserved. This is a testament to the wide range of dynamics brought to the work under Adolf Busch’s guidance.
 
The scherzo and trio is unusually brief, given that most repeats were omitted. These would have required a fifth side of a 78rpm record when originally released. What there is of it is finely played, and forms an effective contrast to the closing presto tarantella, which receives a performance of real strength with self-propelling drive.
 
The drama contained within the D.887 quartet is evident from the rhythmic angularity of the Allegro molto moderato’s opening pages, and much of the hesitancy that can be felt thereafter. The Busch quartet live and convey the range of emotions in this music like no other quartet I have ever encountered or am ever likely to experience. On one level it could be tempting to read into their nervous and lacerating energy much about the mood of the late 1930s, when the work was recorded by a quartet at its artistic peak. That said this factor does not deepen one’s knowledge of Schubert much, if at all. There is little doubt though that Schubert’s music benefits from the tension with which the Busch quartet invest it. More so than the finale of D.810, this quartet is one that must be driven in approach – even in supposedly more relaxed passages – but always with an ear for structure and sonority.   Tragedy and agony are two qualities Tully Potter identifies in the second movement particularly, but I would add humanity also. There is nothing brash or barbaric about either the quartet’s conception or playing here. Indeed, if one needed a single movement to pinpoint the group’s quality, I would choose this one. The cello line is a full and firm foundation; the alto builds naturally upon it whilst the violins do not over-dominate proceedings.
 
The Scherzo, as the Busch quartet plays it, is a model of Viennese style. It’s welcome to hear more of the movement, particularly the immensely lyrical trio section, taken at a real Allegretto tempo – not always an easy one to judge. The closing Allegro assai is full of instrumental exchanges that show just how fine the Busch quartet were at responding to their own playing within the group. Many a quartet today could learn from their example. Their feeling for the music is unsurpassed nearly seventy years after it was recorded.
 
Evan Dickerson
 

 

 

 


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