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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Quintet in E Major for piano and strings Op.44 (1842) [30.51]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Quintet No.2 in A major for piano and strings Op.26 (1862) [46.12]
Clifford Curzon (piano)
Budapest String Quartet
rec. Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, Washington DC, 1951-52
NAXOS 8.110306 [77.03]

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This is the first of two volumes devoted to the early post-War collaboration between Clifford Curzon and the Budapest Quartet. The sides were recorded in the airless and constricted auditorium at the Library of Congress, a pre-condition of the quartet’s using the Stradivari violins being that they had to remain in situ. So the acoustic counts against the performers, being cramped and imparting an acidic tone especially to the fiddles of Roisman and Gorodetzky. That, however, is an inevitable corollary of the performances that were first issued on Columbia LPs and are here transferred from just such copies. I can’t imagine the recording limitations will unduly concern admirers of either the pianist or the quartet, who were long to remain favoured residents at the Library of Congress (numerous releases on Bridge have documented a number of those performances).

Their Schumann was the earlier to be recorded, in April 1951. The cramped and acidic tone especially relates to this performance; a good one, as well, though by no means a great one. I prefer the recording made in December 1953 at the same location with Arthur Balsam as pianist which tends, live as it is, to have a greater sense of adrenalin and commitment. There’s something just a shade devitalised about the Columbia first movement, for all the finely etched cello line and Curzon’s leonine playing. The stronger accents and more pressing individualism of the concert performance tend to show up the studio recording. Things here are rather more lateral, whereas the funereal march in concert is more sharply grained. The Scherzo sounds well in both performances but in the studio fortes are harsh and the timbre generally is inclined to be chilly; the finale is taken at the same tempo on both occasions and it’s properly buoyant.

Coupled with the Schumann is Brahms’ A major. We can hear some surface noise of course from the LP transfer but not so much that enjoyment is impaired. Here the Budapest occasionally gives in to its besetting sin, one of over nuanced phrasing (manicured if you’re unsympathetic). Though the opening is pliant and expressive, and though Curzon is lyrical, full of power and excellent, if one turns to the much earlier 1932 HMV recording that the Busch Quartet made with Rudolf Serkin we find a different type of Brahmsian aesthetic. The Busch are more urgent, ardent and taut – their phrasing is manlier, for what of a better word, less the curvaceous sheen of the Russians, heavier of accents, more directional. Gains in the later recording are obviously those of textual clarity – you really can hear inner parts that were submerged in the rougher hewn Busch performance. I enjoyed the lullaby like feel imparted to the slow movement by the Budapest – in contradistinction the Busch are tougher, though still sensitive, less nocturnal, and less reliant on explicit contrasts. The Budapest take a rather grand seigniorial approach to the Scherzo – there’s something a touch raffiné about it by the side of the more toughly concentrated Busch. Curzon is certainly more elegant than Serkin in the finale – but the Budapest makes this sound more Schubertian than ideally it should and overall I prefer the tensile grip the Busch/Serkin team impart. Their sound world sounds altogether more authentic for all that Curzon was a famously successful Brahmsian and the Budapest was long associated with the repertoire.

As I said sound constraints are inherent and for all my strictures this recording has been absent from the catalogues for too long. Tully Potter’s notes are well judged and the next brace of performances by these forces – Dvořák and Brahms’ Op.34 – can’t be far behind.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Tony Haywood


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