This completes the
Naxos two-disc survey of the collaboration on commercial disc
between Curzon and the Budapest Quartet. It produced many fine
things but over some of the recordings hangs a certain, strangely
unsatisfactory air. It’s hard for example to pin down precisely
what went wrong in the 1953 Dvořák Quintet or why this
1953 reading should prove to be flawed. The Budapest Quartet
certainly had a command of the Central European idiom and the
fact that they were now an all-Russian, Hungarian-less foursome
is hardly germane – David Oistrakh was a supreme exponent of
the composer. And Curzon himself returned to the work for Decca
in 1962 when he teamed with the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet
for a classic reading that’s been much reissued over the years.
So the pairing should have worked.
Tempi are sensible
in the main (excluding the slow movement), tempo relationships
are not pushed too far; individual contributions are warm and
buoyant. The balance between piano and quartet is very reasonable.
Tully Potter mentions in his notes that shortly before the recording
leader Roisman had broken his wrist and it had been badly reset.
There are a few, very few, moments when his intonation wanders
but that was clearly not a major contributing factor. The disappointment
is the slow movement, a Dumka of great fame, which seems to
have reduced the quintet to lethargy. That Curzon seems habitually
to have taken it this way can be shown by the fact that his
1962 recordings is almost as slow and given that the Budapest
tended to be solicitous to piano guests I’d be tempted to lay
the responsibility at his door - were it not for the fact that
the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet’s rhythm is tauter and more
springy than the Budapest. If one turns to the Janáček
Quartet’s reading we find them taking a far fleeter tempo altogether,
taking a good three minutes off the Budapest-Curzon reading.
The companion is
the Brahms Op.34. It receives a consistently more convincing
traversal if again not one to put it in the top-most bracket.
Comparison can be made between this 1950 disc and the live performance
given by the Quartet with George Szell – ironically once more
in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress back in
1945 (on Bridge). Tempi are very similar and the sense of sonority
and direction equally. Differences reflect the slightly different
composition of the group – Ortenberg was second violin in 1945,
Gorodezky in 1950 – and the profile of the pianists. Szell and
Curzon were to collaborate on a magnificent Brahms D minor Concerto
and their views of the quintet are not too dissimilar. Szell
and the Budapest are slightly more urgent and expressive live
in the first movement, and Szell tends to weight his chordal
playing rather more deeply than Curzon in the slow movement.
But Curzon is, perhaps surprisingly given the studio bound nature
of this recording, bolder and more exciting in the scherzo –
though Szell brings great light and shade to his phrasing, as
he and the quartet do in the slow introduction to the finale.
Given that the Coolidge
is an auditorium routinely bashed for its boxiness and constriction
it was remarkable how well the Columbia engineers dealt with
it. Not a perfect acoustic, certainly, but to those who know
the live Budapest or, say, Francescatti recordings there it
will come as a pleasant surprise. The transfers, from LPs, have
been carried out with commendable care and skill.