> The Budapest String Quartet. The Library of Congress Recordings 1940-1945 - Mozart [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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The Budapest String Quartet. The Library of Congress Recordings 1940-1945
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Quintet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings K581
Quartet in D Minor K421
Quartet in A Major K464
Quartet in E Flat major for Piano and Strings K493
Divertimento in E Flat for Violin, Viola and Cello K563
Budapest String Quartet with
Gustave Langenus, clarinet
George Szell, piano
Recorded at The Coolidge Auditorium of The Library of Congress in September 1940 (Clarinet Quintet), December 1943 (String Quartets) November 1944 (Divertimento), October 1945 (Piano Quartet)
BRIDGE 9085 [2 CDs 69.47 and 62.24]

Volume Ten in the series of live Library of Congress recitals is a very generous set devoted to the Budapest Quartet’s Mozart. It also cannily covers much ground in presenting the full quartet in a 1943 K421 and K464 and then joined by Langenus in the Clarinet Quintet, Szell in the Piano Quartet and to finish Roisman, Kroyt and Schneider slim down for the E Flat Major Divertimento. The discs are especially valuable for the collective light shone on the Quartet’s Mozart performances, which tend to be overshadowed rather by their Beethoven and Haydn, and also in the light of the almost contemporaneous recordings made of the same works. A greater sense of elasticity is almost always present in the concert performances, with congenial surroundings, sympathetic colleagues and a greater sense of expressive breadth adding to the real rewards of this splendid slimline double.

The Clarinet Quintet brings to the fore the Belgian clarinettist Gustave Langenus, born in Malines in 1893, whose early success in England led to a place in Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra. He was subsequently hired by Walter Damrosch for the New York Symphony, left for the Philharmonic and then began a long career as chamber player, soloist and teacher. A consummate romantic with a beautiful rounded tone he blends with the string players in a performance of marvellous intimacy and projection. They maintain a good tempo in the Allegro, but flow especially convincingly in the Larghetto where Langenus’s occasionally almost flute like upper register lends the movement a distinction all its own. In the Menuetto there is some vital and elegant phrasing and the finale is precise but with sufficient space to breathe – and I admired cellist Mischa Schneider’s bass accents here. Comparison with the famous recording the Budapest Quartet made with Benny Goodman is almost all in favour of this Langenus concert. Goodman always regretted that he and the Budapest had not played the work in concert before recording it – the result is an attractively played but rather metrical performance, with heavy bar lines audible, and a sense of over caution wearyingly pervasive. (It’s less well known that the previous year he had been booked to record it with the Pro Arte Quartet but had apparently turned up at the recording studios after an overnight trip with a soft reed instead of the harder ones used by classical clarinettists, blew a few disappointing notes, packed up and left). Langenus by contrast was a practised exponent of the chamber literature – far more experienced in fact than his younger colleagues – and the resultant performance is one worthy of the music.

For the E Flat Major Piano Quartet the Quartet are joined by a sometime collaborator, George Szell, whose splendid playing in the Brahms F Minor Quintet at the Library of Congress I recently reviewed and greatly admired (Bridge 9062). Together with Szell they also recorded the two Quartets – as they did later with Mieczyslaw Horszowski. In 1945 at the Coolidge Auditorium they played the E Flat Major over two nights and the performance presented by Bridge is a composite; the first movement comes from the first performance, the second and third from the following day. Harris Goldsmith, as ever an erudite guide, notes the differences in flexibility between this concert and the commercial disc and it’s quite true; analogous, in fact, to the Langenus-Goodman disparity in the greater breadth and flowing flexibility attributable to the live performance. There is also greater metrical freedom and less abrupt and sharpened attacks.

In the Divertimento Roisman, Kroyt and Schneider conjoin in a reading of considerable élan. Goldsmith points out that their 1940s aesthetic shares a profile – and a speed – with that of the Heifetz-Primrose-Feuermann recording. This is true to an extent though the Budapest players are actually slower in almost all six movements; the expressive freedom thus gained are ones of flexibility and familiarity- they’d played this music longer and deeper than the more celebrated trio. The Budapest reading fits somewhere between that extreme of hyper virtuosity and the more pliant romanticism of the only other then commercially available disc, by the Pasquier Trio, altogether a more reflective affair and attractively so. In the Quartets the players are commandingly fluent. Some scuffs mar the opening movement of K421 – the sound quality varies in places but is never less than acceptable and often a good deal more so - and some may feel they open rather too casually but the Andante is fine. Again maybe the Menuetto falls slight prey to a sense of manipulation but the final movement is elegantly decisive. Not a stellar performance but a good one. K464 is better though I have reservations about the Menuetto again which is rather too manicured for me. The integration and tonal play of the two violins in the opening Allegro is splendid however and the Andante, lasting over eleven minutes, flows seamlessly – a pity about the chuffs and clicks from 2.00 onwards but you can listen through it to the pleasure beyond.

No complaints about presentation and booklet; few about the recording or playing either. This is a splendidly engrossing set, full of life and engagement, and strongly recommended.

Jonathan Woolf

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