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
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.