> Brahms - Schubert: The Budapest String Quartet [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet Op 34
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Quintet for Violin, Viola, Violoncello, Contrabass and Piano The Trout
The Budapest Quartet
Georges Moleux, bass
George Szell, piano [who speaks about acoustical recording and his early studies 3’51]
Recorded at the Coolidge Auditorium of The Library of Congress October 11 1945 (Brahms) and May 16 1946 (Schubert)
BRIDGE 9062 [77’41]


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Archive recordings made in the Coolidge Auditorium of The Library of Congress have been appearing with commendable regularity over the last few years. Many feature the resident quartet, the Budapest, and this coupling gives us in addition the impressive piano collaboration of none other than George Szell, here returning to the days of his prodigy youth.

Founded in 1918 by the time of these recitals at the Library of Congress, which began in 1940, the Budapest had altered out of all recognition. The three Hungarians and one Dutchman, Hauser, Indig, Ipolyi and Son had, following defection, resignation, retirement and general hounding resulted in the all Russian formation of Josef Roismann (still with the double n) and Alexander Schneider, violins, Boris Kroyt, viola, and Mischa Schneider, cello – though it must be pointed out that in this recital Alexander – Sasha – Scheider was on sabbatical, having joined the Albeneri Trio and founded his own chamber groups. In his place came Edgar Ortenberg, like leader Roismann, Milstein, Oistrakh and many others a pupil of Stolyarsky. He was to forge a small but select solo discographic career for himself – the peak of which was his fine recording, with Lukas Foss, of Hindemith’s Third Sonata of 1935 on the small Hargail label.

The sound on these performances varies from excellent to patchy, though very much more of the former and the Brahms, fortunately, is notably better recorded than the Schubert. The success of the works varies as well. The Brahms is in fact an auspiciously fine performance, without mannerism and, better still, little dichotomous inclinations from either quartet or pianist. The Quartet’s charactertically lean sonority is put to splendid use. The opening movement flows with pliancy and conviction; phrasing is elegantly if perhaps a little coolly expressive; no obstacles, rhythmic or thematic, obstruct the longer line. Roismann and Ortenberg are especially chaste in the Andante, striking a notable balance between movement and reflection, whilst the stomping and rhythmically galvanised Scherzo is conveyed with the maximum of surging energy and the minimum of instrumental problems. They catch the winding rather austere introduction to the Finale with genuine understanding and subsequent incidents – crisp accents, charm and real humour (the Budapest are generally much more witty live than in the studio) reinforce their comprehensive control of the work. Szell is a most sympathetic and astute collaborator – he was to record Mozart with them commercially – and the performance as a whole most impressive.

Shock, horror – track five is three minutes and fifty-one seconds of George Szell’s humour. In distinctive American inflected vowels this Central European tyrant chats about the ubiquity of the bass tuba in acoustic orchestral recordings, Max Reger’s huge teaching classes and that pedagogue’s tendency to tell dirty jokes in public. He also reminds us that he was a child piano prodigy and studied composition with Foerster. Doubtless not reflections he passed on to the members of the Cleveland Orchestra over a soothing cup of tea.

The Schubert is alas a disappointment after the Brahms. Roismann, Kroyt and Mischa Schneider collaborate with Szell and bass player Georges Moleux. The sound is not awful but there is a recessive quality to it and there are some little audible ruptures in the acetates – though continuity is maintained and those ears accustomed to live performances of this kind will be quite used to such things. Harris Goldsmith, an excellent annotator who fuses erudition with judgement, is more than a little circumspect when he refers to this performance that he rightly characterises as one that "expunges….the gemütlichkeit…" from the music as well as some superficially unattractive slowings down in the Andante – they sound like the huge rallentandos that routinely ended a 78 side. In fact the performance isn’t really thought-through. Too many peculiarities attend to the fabric of the playing, the Theme and Variations is rather badly disfigured by scrabble and scratch, and it also emerges as rather lumpenly phrased. Not uninstructive to listen to but best to stick to the Brahms.

A variably successful recital but most refreshing to hear Szell’s idiomatic and subtle Brahmsian collaboration and recommended for that reason – and the Regerian quips of course, as well.

Jonathan Woolf

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