Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No.1 in F Op.18 No.1 (1798-1800) [25:31]
String Quartet No.2 in G Op.18 No.2 (1798-1800) [21:15]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 1897)
String Quartet No.1 in C minor Op.51 No.1 (1865-1873) [28:34]
Catterall String Quartet (Arthur Catterall and John S. Bridge (violins), Frank S. Park (viola), Johan C. Hock (cello))
rec. 1921-24.
HISTORIC RECORDINGS HRCD00107 [75:38]

This is Volume 3 in Historic Recordingsís Arthur Catterall series, and an impressive series it is too. It has restored discs made by the British violinist to the catalogue, ones that have never been available since the 1920s.

This particular volume is devoted to the quartet Catterall led with his Manchester colleagues. It disinters important premiŤres. The Beethoven Op.18 No.1 and the Brahms recordings were the first ever made. The former recording was closely followed by one from the Lyric Quartet later in 1923, but this slightly abridged recording on Velvet Face sank without trace. The Brahms Quartet is only represented on an acoustic set by this Catterall recording. Itís true that the London String Quartet beat the Catterall to the draw when it came to the Op.18 No.2 quartet, but their 1916 recording was cut to fit onto four 78 sides, whereas the Catterall took six in 1924.

The most adventurous and committed chamber recordings of the period were all British-made. In the London, Catterall, Spencer Dyke, Kutcher, Philharmonic, and Virtuoso, amongst others, Britain boasted a phalanx of outstanding groups. High amongst them stood the Catterall, and John S. Bridge (violin), Frank S. Park (viola), and Johan C. Hock (cello) were the leaderís colleagues.

The Beethoven Quartet in F was recorded between 1921 and June 1923 and must surely have achieved the longest gestation by any acoustic chamber work. Five or more days, well over a year apart, were sufficient to ensure completion of the undertaking. Incidentally the recording details given in this disc omit the 1921 date and start in May 1922, but I believe that 1921 is accurate. The companion Quartet took just under a year to complete, reflecting clearly that either the group or HMV was having problems. The Brahms recording, conversely, was wrapped up in successive days in June 1923.

Itís interesting to note that whereas portamenti are free, and that textures are necessarily thicker, in the Brahms, Catterall and his colleagues are more judicious, subtle and sparing in their use of these devices in the Beethoven quartets. They are certainly used, only the slides are quicker, and you donít hear the intermediate note. Greater weight and intensity is reserved for the Brahms. Sometimes the cello has to fight to be heard; on some sides its positioning with regard to the recording horn was well judged; but on others itís more distant. The Catterall invariably make, as was very common, big rallentandi to end some sides. On a Ďjoined upí recording this may sound peculiar or capricious, but itís not; rather itís an eminently musical solution to that old turn-over problem.

Catterall is obviously the outstanding player, and he plays with crystalline clarity and articulation. His rhythmic sense is solid. Bridge is a fine second violinist, and as he showed in his recording of the Bach Double Concerto with Catterall, heís no pushover. Frank Park is a solid ensemble violist, sometimes a little hoarse toned.

The transfers are forward and catch plenty of detailing. Youíll find a fair degree of shellac hiss, but it will be worth listening through it as the results catch the tonal qualities of the instruments individually and collectively very well. Credit HMVís engineers back in the 1920s too. Itís true that some side joins are audible, and youíll find surface noise increasing at the beginning of turn-overs. Again, perseverance pays rewards.

There are no notes, just a card inlay with recording dates and a track listing. Unfortunately there are no matrix or catalogue numbers given.

Of course the market for this disc will be small; a sub-sect of the classical market is the Historic Market, and a sub-sub sect is the collector of early electrics. Beyond that, the sub-sub-sub sect is the collector of acoustic recordings. But let me end by commending this label for producing a disc such as this. If you want to trace the recorded history of chamber music on disc, you will need to consider recordings like these. This is where it all began.

Jonathan Woolf

This is where it all began.