Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
String Quartet No. 15 in G, D887 (1826) [40:29]
String Quartet No. 8 in B-flat, D112 (Op.168) [25:24]
The Busch String Quartet (Adolf Busch (violin); Gösta Andreasson (violin); Karl Doktor (viola); Hermann Busch (cello))
rec. five HMV 78s, 22, 30 November 1938 (Quartet No.15); three HMV 78s, 25 November 1938 (Quartet No.8).

We are becoming used to modern transfers which bring out the hidden life of old recordings, both LPs and 78s, but this one made by Andrew Rose in October, 2009 is without doubt the best re-mastering that I have heard of any pre-war recording. I should not have been surprised - my colleagues have been singing the praises of these re-masterings for some time now. You wouldn’t mistake it for something recorded recently, but you might well be forgiven for thinking it a transfer of a mid-1950s master tape. I am not normally a great fan of historical recordings - they have to be special, like the Beecham La Bohème - but this is certainly a recording that I shall be keeping in my collection.

The Busch Quartet’s Schubert has always been well regarded, but this was the first time that I have been able to judge that reputation for myself and I am as impressed by the performances as by the brushing up of the recording. I had half-expected to hear some pre-war quirks of playing; in the event, I was not aware of anything of the sort.

String Quartet No.15, D887, is comparatively well known today - less so in 1938, I imagine - and there are several good modern recordings. The Busch Quartet version was already available on a mid-price EMI CD, coupled with the Death and the Maiden Quartet, No.14, from 1936 - not listed by some dealers, so it may be destined for deletion - and in the same coupling from Urania. I haven’t heard either of those transfers, but it is difficult to believe that they might excel or even equal the Pristine Audio. Evan Dickerson wrote about the EMI in detail and I urge you to read that review, since it contains a detailed analysis of D887 that sits so well with my own that it would be senseless to repeat it.

I’m not quite sure how the engineers in 1938 fitted D887 on five 78s. Presumably the first movement at 13:26 and the second at 11:33 each ran to three sides, though I can’t see how the remaining movements, at 5:58 and 9:32 could then have been fitted on the remaining four sides.

There must have been some temptation to adapt tempi to suit a more convenient set of side-breaks, but artistic considerations clearly triumphed over the technical. I was never conscious of tempi increasing as the engineers desperately signalled the end of a side. Some repeats are omitted, but that is not unusual in live performance or on modern recordings where time restraints are not relevant. In fact, I rather feel that this quartet benefits from the omission of some repeats; it is rather a long work.

Naxos manage only the Five German Dances, D90, as the coupling for their performance by the Kodály Quartet (8.557125), though I continue to recommend that performance as the best combination of quality and price, along with the Philips Duo set of all the late quartets with the Quartetto Italiano: 446 163-2 - one to snap up if you want a good stereo set of Quartets 12-15: Philips Duos seems to be on a deletions roll. I regard the Kodály Quartet performance rather more highly than did Michael Cookson - see review - I’m more inclined to agree with Terry Barfoot, who thought it a triumphant performance - see review. That Naxos recording, downloaded from classisconline, has recently been my version of choice - see my April, 2009, Download Roundup. Now I shall be hard put to choose between it and the Busch Quartet. I haven’t yet tried the Belcea Quartet’s recent recording of Quartets 14 and 15, with the String Quintet, an EMI 2-CD bargain which Michael Cookson made Recording of the Month - see review. From past experience of the Belcea’s Schubert, I shouldn’t be surprised to find myself placing that version, too, at or near the top of the pile.

String Quartet No.8 is far less well known. The Busch version is already available on a 4-CD EMI set coupling it with Mendelssohn and Beethoven which was awarded a Rosette in the Penguin Guide.

The performance certainly earns my equivalent of that rosette and I cannot imagine the Pristine Audio transfer being bettered or even rivalled. I can’t remember having heard this quartet more than once or twice and I had not tended to think of it as one of Schubert’s best works in this form, but the Busch Quartet left me wondering why. The central movements offer a typically Schubertian contrast between the profundity of the Andante sostenuto and the sheer delight of the Menuetto, a contrast which is very effectively brought out in this performance. Again, I don’t hear any evidence of tempi being forced to accommodate the work on six 78 sides, though the engineers probably held their breath over the 9:12 time for the second movement, which is pushing the limit for two 78 sides somewhat.

By their own reckoning, Pristine Audio had good material to work with here in some of HMV’s finest 78 rpm recordings. Their website describes the techniques employed and the various stages of the process, two of which are illustrated with recorded examples. The crackle caused by HMV’s employment of hard shellac was comparatively easy to deal with, though I remember that it was the bane of those of us who, in the dying days of 78s, tried to preserve our records by using Imhof fibre needles, which had to be regularly re-sharpened. The harder the shellac, the more frequent the sharpening, especially if the grooves had to cleared of detritus in the case of a record that had been played with steel needles.

Surface swish, the 78 equivalent of tape hiss, is harder to remove when it falls within the frequencies which the engineers wish to preserve. It is briefly apparent in the third movement of Quartet No.8, if heard on phones, but it is never really troublesome. The final stage of the re-mastering involves the application of an ambient stereo effect - not the kind of frequency filtering that Decca and others employed in the 1970s, though I never found that quite as troublesome as many did - but something far more subtle. EMI’s German partner Electrola used to employ a subtle technique called Breitklang, to add greater breadth and depth to mono recordings without artificial spatial pinpointing of voices or instruments. I seem to recall some Rudolf Kempe opera recordings benefited from the technique and I imagine that something similar has been employed here. The final result still sounds a little dry, but that’s all there is to complain about.

Pristine Audio offer no analysis of the music, though they give details about the recording, including the matrix numbers and which takes were chosen. The notes on Adolf Busch, from Wikipedia, on the rear insert are printed in a very small font (Goudy?) which is hard to read - a sans-serif font might have been more legible at this size. Perhaps it all ties in with Pristine’s campaign to persuade everybody to take the green route and download their recordings. In addition to the CD, this recording is available in mp3 form for €7 and in lossless flac for €9. Whichever form you choose, I urge you to listen and to go for it. Look at the Pristine Audio website, too; there are several other recordings there that I find very tempting and I think you will, also.

Brian Wilson