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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Adolf Busch: Live Concerto recordings
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Violin Concerto in A minor Op. 53 B108 (1880 rev. 1882)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1898)

Violin Concerto in D Op. 77 (1878)
National Orchestral Association conducted by Leon Barzin (Dvořák, 10 December 1944)
Basel Orchestra conducted by Hans Münch (Brahms, 18 December 1951)
ARBITER 117 [67.24]



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Arbiter’s catalogue boasts a number of performances by Busch and by his Quartet. This one collates two works closely associated with him in live performances. The Dvořák dates from 1944 in New York and the Brahms comes from Basel in 1951, his last performance – increasingly ill he died the following year. His Brahms was never recorded commercially but we now have two off-air survivals; this and a Music and Arts William Steinberg led performance from 1943. There is also a live Finale from a different performance that was previously the only known example of his Concerto performances. Note writer Tully Potter writes with predictable understanding about Busch but his assertion that he was the Brahms’ Concerto’s "leading exponent in the years between the Wars" can be taken with a pinch of salt (Huberman? Kreisler?). A leading exponent, maybe.

I am a great admirer of Busch but this Brahms finds him, as Potter admits, in decline. The sound quality is generally good, a little muffled and with some acetate damage (there seems to have been some little damage at 0.30 in the orchestral introduction but it passes quickly) but quite sufficient to allow uninterrupted scrutiny of Busch’s performance which differs markedly from that Finale performance and from the swagger of the Steinberg 1943 performance. Hans Münch (cousin of Charles) is a sympathetic accompanist but even he can’t prevent Busch rushing his passagework in the first movement and the sense of him jumping his bars. His playing from 10.30 is decidedly sketchy and his technical frailties probingly apparent. It’s good to hear his own first movement cadenza. The slow movement enshrines the carapace of a once fine conception; the oboe solo is good, Busch making a couple of quick and colourful slides but there is some lack of orchestral clarity behind him and once or twice there is pitch distortion on the recording. Busch’s once ebullient way with the Finale now sounds decidedly and inevitably perhaps far more tired and effortful. He was always animated and quick here and he’s still less then half a minute slower than the Steinberg performance but here the tone takes on a slightly smeary and artificial-sounding emotiveness.

The companion Dvořák with Leon Barzin dates from the latter stages of the War. He had performed a lot of Dvořák (but recorded only the Op. 51 Quartet) so it’s certainly of major importance to hear his Concerto performance and in such good sound. It’s a strong and forceful traversal but one that remains unconvincing. His first movement sports some didactic passagework and a distinct lack of plasticity of phraseology. There is too much emphatic playing and, as with the Brahms, Busch is guilty of rushing bars. As a result the opening movement for much of the time sounds rhythmically jerky and casually eruptive, despite some delightfully emotive moments from the soloist. As the movement develops one can however feel him becoming more idiomatic even if the recording fails to flatter the famous and much mused upon Busch tone. Barzin shapes the opening of the second movement with real understanding but Busch does make some rather unlovely sounds – his lower two strings are the main culprits – and his tone tends to thinness. For all the occasional delight of his playing the tonal and concomitant technical liabilities are too pronounced here. The National Orchestral Association sounds bluff rather than inspired in the opening of the finale and Busch seems to be tiring rapidly (there is more evidence of technical limitations). Nevertheless the way he varies his phrasing, keeping the lyric line constantly energised, is treasurable even if his entry points are really very emphatic indeed. The result is a fitful, not entirely cohesive performance.

The irony of the German Busch performing Dvořák in New York in 1944 whilst the Czech Prihoda had slightly earlier recorded it in Berlin won’t go unnoticed. Whatever ones position regarding the moral implications involved these should remain independent of ones judgement of the performances. The Brahms is a study in decline and the Dvořák a most unusual, not entirely successful, traversal. I would however strongly urge those interested in Busch seriously to study the disc; what it discloses, even by default, is of significance.

Jonathan Woolf



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