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|Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Late String Quartets
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]
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 ‘Serioso’ (1810)
String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 (1825-26)
Große Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133 (arr. string orchestra by Felix Weingartner)
String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 (1825) [45:00]
String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135 (1826) [27:59]
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).
GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 5096552 [3
CDs: 78:59 + 70:44 + 73:07]
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Great Recordings of the Century
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