It seems to me that
there are two prime justifications for
an ‘historic’ issue. Either such recordings
illuminate the music in some way or
they add to our appreciation of the
artist(s) involved. I’m not sure that
this release fulfills either of these
Here we have performances
of two pillars of the Austro-German
symphonic repertoire by Fritz Busch
(1890-1951) recorded in the year before
his untimely death. As is their wont,
Urania provide no information whatsoever
as to the source of the recordings (or
about anything else, come to that.)
The performances are described as "Public
Domain Recordings". Does this mean
they are recordings made for broadcast
by a radio station? I can detect no
sounds of an audience.
The Beethoven begins
quite promisingly with a lightness of
touch and sense of forward momentum
in the introduction to the first movement.
The main body of the allegro is quite
lithe and dances along nicely. While
the VSO may lack the tonal allure of
more prestigious bands (though how much
is such an impression due to the recorded
sound?) they play with enthusiasm.
Sadly, the second movement
is a major disappointment. Busch elects
a ponderously slow tempo that means
that the music unfolds as a weary trudge.
It’s worth noting that he takes 9’42"
for this movement. Two other historic
recordings that I selected at random
from my own collection (by Toscanini
and Weingartner) both come in at around
8’00" without sounding in the least
bit rushed. Some may find a degree of
gravitas in Busch’s reading but for
me it’s too slow and rather portentous.
The scherzo is much
better, bowling along with energy. The
finale is driven very strongly, which
is fine although there are places where
the violins have audible difficulties
with semiquavers at this tempo. All
in all I’d categorize this performance
as decent but not remarkable and for
me the second movement pretty much rules
it out of court.
The first movement
of the Brahms is uncommonly fleet. There’s
certainly no autumnal lingering here.
Busch contributed a bracing reading
of the same composer’s Second Symphony
in EMI’s ‘Great Conductors of the Twentieth
Century’ series and I rather liked that.
I’m much less convinced here. The pace
is just too swift for my taste. It seems
that Busch has not considered fully
the tempo marking, which is Allegro
non troppo (my emphasis.)
The music simply doesn’t have sufficient
time to breath and expand and by the
time I’d listened right through I felt
that the reading was just plain perfunctory.
The speed leads to breathless phrasing
from the orchestra – at times they sound
as if they’re just hanging on by their
fingertips. After this I got down Rudolf
Kempe’s live 1976 performance (on BBC
Legends). One has only to listen for
a few minutes to appreciate what Busch
has missed. Kempe, masterly as ever
in Brahms, finds so much more light
and shade, so much more expressive give
and take by adopting a more easeful,
but not sluggish speed. A comparison
of timings is instructive. Busch dispatches
the movement in 10’46"; Kempe takes
Busch’s speed for the
second movement is much more conventional.
Now the music sounds more at ease and
so do the players. Busch himself seems
to control the music much better in
terms both of pace and shading.
It’s back to brisk
tempi in the third movement, which Busch
plays at a very similar speed to that
adopted by Victor de Sabata in his 1939
Berlin Philharmonic recording (Andante)
that I reviewed recently. The pace adopted
by both conductors is challenging and
exhilarating, although it must be said
that the VSO are not quite as nimble
in negotiating the notes as are the
I find the concluding
passacaglia something of a curate’s
egg. Some passages sound rushed while
others (such as the sparsely accompanied
flute variant) come off well. Overall,
I have to say that I’ve heard tauter,
more distinctive readings of this movement.
In fact my reaction
to the performance of the whole symphony
is pretty much the same as I felt about
the Beethoven. I have a major reservation
over one movement and the remainder
is satisfactory without having any special
distinction. There are other, better
historic versions of both works on the
market (one thinks of Weingartner in
the Beethoven and Mengelberg in the
Brahms, both on Naxos, which are much
more characterful.) The sound quality
is no better than adequate and, as mentioned
before, documentation is non-existent.
Unless you’re a Busch completist I’d
suggest you look elsewhere.