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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Late String Quartets
CD 1
String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127 (1824-25) [37:51]
String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826) [40:58]
CD 2
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 ‘Serioso’ (1810) [19:00]
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 (1825-26) [34:57]
Große Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133 (arr. string orchestra by Felix Weingartner) (1825-26) [16:47]
CD 3
String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 (1825) [45:00]
String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 (1826) [27:59]
Busch Quartet: (Adolf Busch (violin); Gösta Andreasson (violin); Karl Doktor (viola); Hermann Busch (cello))
Busch Chamber Players/Adolf Busch (Op. 133)
rec. Abbey Road studio (Op. 127 and Op. 131); 1932 Abbey Road studio (Op. 95); 1941 Liederkranz Hall, New York, USA (Op. 130 and Op. 133); 1937 Abbey Road studio (Op. 132) and 1933 Abbey Road studio (Op. 135).   
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 5096552 [3 CDs: 78:59 + 70:44 + 73:07]
Experience Classicsonline

EMI Classics has been reissuing in tranches their flagship series of ‘Great Recordings of the Century’. They have selected one hundred landmark recordings from their vast treasure house choosing those they believe achieve an extraordinary standard of performance quality.
Unquestionably the ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series features some of the most outstanding performers in the history of recorded classical music. They include such distinguished names as: du Pré, Callas, Karajan, Wunderlich, Menuhin, Brain, Ferrier, Klemperer, Lipatti, Fischer-Dieskau, Milstein, Furtwängler, Ludwig, Schnabel, Barbirolli and Schwarzkopf.
Not everyone will share the opinions of the EMI series producers. People have their own preferences and I have read several reviewers disputing the merits of various chosen recordings. However, there can be only a very small minority of music-lovers who are unable to appreciate the eminence of the Busch Quartet in these historic recordings.
The monumental and often daunting nature of Beethoven’s remarkable late quartets is never in doubt. David Ewen expressed the view that in these scores, “…we confront a new manner of voice treatment, a new approach to structure, a new concept of lyricism and thematic development together with the most daring progressions, modulations, and discords.” (The Complete Book of Classical Music. 1966, Robert Hale, London. ISBN: 0 7091 0884 2).
The first work here is the four movement String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127. Composed 1824-25 it was dedicated to Prince Nikolas Galitzin and first performed in March 1825. One immediately notices the assurance of the Busch Quartet. The squally power in the Scherzando is impressive and the wide dynamics in the Finale have a controlled energy.
Completed in 1826 and cast in seven movements the lengthy String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 was dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim. Here the Busch convey a spontaneity and freshness in their magnetic playing. There is an affectionate vulnerability to their reading of the Andante and their sharp and telling Presto is commanding.
The first work on CD 2 is the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 ‘Serioso’ that Beethoven completed in 1810; a product of his middle not his late period. The four movement score has solemnity and soberness and has become known as the ‘Serioso’. There is a robust and penetrating quality to the playing in the Allegros and the performance of the Allegretto is especially warm-hearted.
From 1825-26 the String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 is a substantial piece cast in six movements with a dedication to Prince Nikolas Galitzin. The first performance was in Vienna in March 1826 with the Große Fuge as its original final movement. It was performed in April 1827 with its present final movement – believed to be Beethoven’s last ever composition for string quartet. I was impressed by the Busch’s secure grip, evident in the opening Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro. In the Cavatina their divine playing has a remarkable intensity.

The Große Fuge dates from 1825-26 and was dedicated to Archduke Rudolph. As mentioned above it was originally the final movement of Op. 130. Here the Busch Chamber Players directed by Adolf Busch have recorded the version for string orchestra as prepared by Felix Weingartner. It was the ensemble’s first studio recording project. There is a deep and relentless concentration to this interpretation that impresses greatly. 
On CD 3 the opening score is the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132,composed in 1825. It bears a dedication to Prince Nikolas Galitzin. The premiere was given in November 1825. This is a massive work that plays here for forty-five minutes. It is accorded a captivating performance especially in the often oppressive and unresolved anxieties of the opening movement Allegro sostenuto - Allegro. I enjoyed the commanding playing of the epic slow movement Molto Adagio; Andante and experienced the brief Alla marcia, assai vivace as especially light and sparkling. In the final movement Allegro appassionato; Presto the players provide a remarkable level of expression amid playing of great nobility.
The concluding work here is the four movement String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135, composed in 1826. Beethoven dedicated it to Johann Wolfmayer and the first performance was given in March 1828. The playing here in the syncopated rhythms of the Vivace movement has a biting, restless quality and there is a deep spirituality to the slow movement; one of Beethoven’s greatest interpretive challenges. In the technically demanding and emotionally draining final movement the playing has an impressive emotional depth and resilience.
Over the years there have been many excellent interpretations of the late quartets from some of the world’s greatest chamber ensembles. In addition to these historic accounts the most prominent versions in the catalogue are from: the Aeolian on Decca, the Alban Berg on EMI Classics, the Petersen on Capriccio, the New Budapest on Hyperion, the Gabrieli on Decca, the Lindsay on ASV, the Emerson on Deutsche Grammophon, the Takács on Decca and the Italian on Philips.
In addition to these superb recordings of the Busch I have been a particular admirer of the established sets from the Italian; the Alban Berg, the Emerson, and more recently, the set from the Takács Quartet.
The Italian Quartet can be heard on Philips 'Duo' across two volumes 454 711-2 and 454 712-2. Although recorded nearly forty years ago in 1967-69 in Switzerland they sound exceptionally fine. The playing is stylish with exceptional musicianship and a comforting feeling of unity gained from years of experience. The tempos feel on the measured side together with a clear and smooth tone; which is acknowledged as one of their major assets.
The Alban Berg Quartet recorded their version at live performances in 1989 at the Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna and these were issued on EMI Classics 4 76820 2. They achieve a remarkable standard of performance and are memorably ardent and spontaneous in the Allegros and convey a sense of the divine and the sublime in the slow movements. The digital sound is of a high quality.
The Grammy Award-winning versions of The Late String Quartets from the Emerson on Deutsche Grammophon ‘Trio’ 474-341-2 were recorded at The American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York in 1994-95. These players demonstrate awesome energy and a robust character in the Allegros. They have a cultivated eye for detail where everything seems to cohere securely. The Emersons have the innate ability to shape each of the quartets with a sure sense of direction in playing of sensitivity balanced with convincing expression.
My first choice is from the Takács Quartet on Decca 470 8490-2. Splendidly recorded in Bristol in 2003-04, these insightful accounts display impressive control combined with striking weight and a remarkable dramatic intensity.
All that said, these Busch performances are superb and reveal insights on a level rarely encountered. Produced in the 1930s and early 1940s these mono recordings have been digitally remastered to an exceptional standard for their age. A stumbling block for some, however, is that the mono sound is no match for modern digital recordings. The recording favours the bright violins against the less audible viola and cello and the sound is generally deficient in depth. Tully Potter’s fine booklet essay focuses on the development of the Busch Quartet and on the making of these recordings. There is no information about the quartets.
Michael Cookson

Great Recordings of the Century review pages


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