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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Artur Balsam and The Budapest String Quartet
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Quartet No 1 in G Minor Op 25 (1861)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Piano Quintet in E Flat Major Op 44 (1842)
Recorded at the Coolidge Auditorium of The Library of Congress 18th December 1951 (Brahms) and 18th December 1953 (Schumann)
BRIDGE 9110 [67.35]


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A portrait of Artur Balsam stares from the cover of Volume 12 in Bridge’s series of live performances from the Coolidge Auditorium of The Library of Congress. He had first joined the Quartet for a performance in 1946 and it was in 1951 that he rejoined them, and again in 1953, the results of which collaboration are preserved here (the other piece played that day in 1951 was the Shostakovich Piano Quintet Op 57 – which I hope will make a future appearance in the series).

Balsam was active as an accompanist at the Library – a recital with Nathan Milstein is on Bridge 9066 and in the Brahms Op 108 I found some of his rhythmic license rather idiosyncratically disturbing. Here however in Brahms’s G Minor Piano Quartet I find him a much more congenial proposition and he joins with the Quartet in a big-boned, muscular reading, leonine and powerful that grips from the start of its not inconsiderable length. Heretical though it may be I have increasingly come to believe that the Budapest’s greatest strength lay in the central to late Romantic repertoire and that their Beethoven, though often rising to great eloquence, is sometimes compromised by moments of slickness and manicured phrasing. Bold, declamatory but well scaled, the Brahms emerges as a powerful creation. Balsam is very slightly backward in the balance but he is by no means subservient in the ensemble and contributes his share – and more – to a driving and sensitive performance. The Allegro opens with purposeful intent; the Intermezzo second movement brings lightness and inflection from the string players Roisman, Kroyt and Mischa Schneider, the slow movement has all the requisite depth of tone required and the finale bursts into life with its contrastive properties of alla zingarese abandon and noble restraint.

The Schumann is more a known quantity because the Quartet recorded it twice. They had recently set it down, two years earlier, with Clifford Curzon and were to record it again a decade or so later after this Library of Congress performance with a very different kind of pianist, Rudolf Serkin. As Harris Goldsmith, the once more excellent annotator, asserts the temperamental qualities of these two recordings are reflective of the pianists’ musical natures; the Curzon is more lyrical and yielding, the Serkin more pungent and antagonistic. Balsam lacks little in drive and conviction but he is fully alert to the pliancy of the second movement and its poco largamente instruction. They don’t play the first movement exposition repeat but do display real drive here and an affecting but somewhat aloof feeling in the slow movement. Staunchness and vigour attend the Scherzo and a sensible tempo in the finale. With Jac Gorodetzky as second violinists the Budapest’s ensemble is tempered by his Gallic affinities and in Balsam they had a worthy partner. This is a good performance but not the equal of the Brahms.

Plenty to savour for the Quartet’s admirers and to hope that there are many more such delights in the vaults to keep us enriched in the years to come.

Jonathan Woolf


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