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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Quintet in F minor for piano and strings Op.34 (1861-62) [38.13]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Quintet in A major for piano and strings Op.81 (1887) [35.17]
Clifford Curzon (piano)
Budapest String Quartet
rec. Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, 1950 (Brahms) and 1953 (Dvořák)
NAXOS 8.110307 [73.31]


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.

Jonathan Woolf



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