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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Late String Quartets
and Op.95
CD 1
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 (1824-25) [37:51]
String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826) [40:58]
CD 2
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor Op.95 Serioso (1810) [19:00]
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 (1825-26) [34:57]
Grosse Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133 (1825-26) arranged Felix Weingartner [16:47]*
CD 3
String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 (1825) [45:00]
String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 (1826) [27:59]
Busch String Quartet
Busch Chamber Players/Adolf Busch*
rec. Abbey Road, London 1932-37 and Liederkranz Hall, New York 1941 (Grosse Fuge and Op.130)
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 5096552 [3 CDs: 78:59 + 70:44 + 73:07]


Experience Classicsonline

I’m happy to say – though surprised to find myself writing it given my unhappy experience with previous releases in the series – that this GROC restoration of the Late Quartets is by and large very acceptable indeed.

The protagonists are the Busch, more than which one needs to add little, except to note – in a hushed, hesitant, rather recusant sort of way - that not everything written about this august body of recordings stands up to scrutiny. And admiration, even devotion, to the spiritual elevation of the Busch way does not invalidate admiration of other quartets of the time. I appreciate that, for example, the Léner Quartet’s way is now seen as a rather vibrato-laden, unintellectual, perhaps generic approach to the cycle of quartets; in some ways the antipode of the Busch. But these things are not binary and the Léner recordings still hold a kind of dominion over my affections whenever I need their powerfully expressive tonal breadth. The one does not invalidate the other.

That said the Abbey Road recordings were always boxy and they didn’t especially flatter the Busch’s timbre, corporate or individual. The American-recorded sides – Op.130 and the Grosse Fuge, in Weingartner’s arrangement and played by the Busch Chamber Players – are adequate but the restoration is certainly no improvement over a previous LP transfer on CBS from way back.

The performances are imbued with the greatest sense of elevation and are amongst the most famous on record. There are only a few points where I feel – and have always felt – that Adolf Busch’s veneration carries him to excess. One is certainly the Molto adagio of Op.132, a locus classicus of Busch’s long bow – exceeded by Zimbalist certainly but still a special weapon in Busch’s violinistic armoury. But not only does the Busch take nearly twenty minutes over it, but also its heavenly length comes at a cost of forward momentum and the retardation is, to me, precisely what the music doesn’t need. The quartet had a tendency to do this; their New York recording of the slow movement of Op.59 No.2 tended to exemplify the same failing. Their fast tempi in outer movements, animated by crisp rhythmic drive, is splendidly conceived however; only occasionally do they render too much latitude as in Op.132.

The other aspect worth noting in passing is the fallible nature of the Chamber orchestra recording, which is hardly the last word in scrupulous attention to detail. In places it’s downright sloppy.

There are now a large number of choices available for these recording. Dutton is issuing the Busch recordings disc by disc – slightly treble dampened but smooth; for example the recent release of Op.131 coupled with Op.59. No3 [Dutton CDBP 9773]. Preiser has issued a two-disc set of Op. 52 No.3 and Opp. 59 No.3, 95, 131 and 132 [90172] (unheard by me). EMI of course, has been active in a previous Andrew Walter incarnation from 1994 – though these didn’t include the American recordings [CHS5 65308-2]. Pearl’s noisier set included Op.95 and the late quartets on three well-filled discs [GEMS 0053].

If you’ve never heard these recordings and can sort out the problems inherent in the Busch Beethoven discography – there are a number of works that have not been collated in one box for various reasons – then I would recommend this three-disc set, unless you want to be selective and dip into the Duttons.

Jonathan Woolf

see also Review by Michael Cookson


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