Collectors will know that Music & Arts issued a three CD
set [CD877] devoted to the Busch—Serkin duo’s live performances.
This re-mastering replaces it, and adds another disc’s worth
of extra live material, which should make a decision to purchase,
if you have the original set, that much tougher. Let me add
at the beginning that the re-mastering has been very successful
and has opened up what was often a cloudy sound. It’s now bright
and forward, very much less razory than the old set, which was
often somewhat unpleasant in places. Distant balances have been
rectified and annoying clicks mitigated. Lani Spahr has done
a fine, fine job.
The performances retain their importance, though the level of
artistic success varies, inevitably, from piece to piece, composer
to composer. Mozart was not really Busch’s greatest strength,
though as ever his playing, and that of Serkin, remains of interest.
There is some affected tone and phrasing from the violinist
in the E flat major sonata K481, especially in its opening movement,
where Serkin proves no shrinking violet — splintery chords included
— though the Adagio is more convincingly phrased. K379 in disc
four is also too large-boned, lacking in light and shade. The
Schubert Rondo is very much better, played with considerable
reserves of masculine power, and the first disc ends with one
of two performances of Brahms’s Op.108 sonata. This one, from
the Edinburgh Festival of 1949 is in rather grainy sound but
finds Busch on fluidly phrasal form. The Adagio is slow and
rather reverential. The other performance of the work to survive
— the duo didn’t record it commercially — dates from 1939 and
is a touch more expansive and also slightly better recorded
Busch’s Bach is noble, virile, and masculine. The Violin and
Keyboard Sonata BWV 1016 is an especially elevated example of
his art. As for the solo sonata in G minor, recorded in Copenhagen
in 1934, this is a composite. Collectors may already have the
Danacord set in which four movements have been preserved. Music
& Arts have added the opening Adagio from a later 1948 Library
of Congress performance to create a whole sonata. Busch’s own
Second Sonata (1941) is in the second disc. Post-Regerian in
orientation, it has taken Brahmsian elements too, but what one
most takes from it is its melodic distinction. The lively and
frolicsome scherzo is a delight, and Busch has the confidence,
like Brahms, to end his sonata quietly. Both Schumann sonatas
are magnificently interpreted. The First was recorded in 1946.
Tempestuous and wholly attuned to the idiom, Busch and Serkin
generate maximal expressive power without sacrificing any architecture
surety. So too in the D minor (April 1943), we find raptly cultivated
playing with an exquisitely poised third movement full of refined
dynamics and phrasing.
The two Beethoven sonatas are the Op.30 No.3 and the Op.96,
both in G major. The former is a known and admired quantity,
dating from April 1943, but the last sonata is previously unreleased
and constitutes one of the major novelties contained in this
set. That said one must acknowledge that it comes from the last
years of Busch’s life and finds him in decline, although the
core of the performance is strong. There’s an especially prayerful
slow movement and the finale is excitingly buoyant. The violinist’s
fabled long bow and viola—dark tone are also evident, to advantage.
Serkin proves an admirable coequal here. Another rarity, also
not on that earlier set, is Schubert’s Fantasy. This was recorded
in 1946, and is a characteristically assured performance, with
the two negotiating the complexities of ensemble with uncanny
precision. It’s a better performance than the other Schubert,
the sonata in A minor—also previously absent from the M &
A set—which is over-sophisticated and lacks an artless quality.
For the record then, and in a handy paragraph, the recordings
previously unreleased in the earlier set are the two Schuberts,
the Beethoven Op. 96 sonata, Mozart’s K379, and the Adagio of
Bach’s G minor sonata.
Painful fact though it may be for Busch and Serkin mavens to
face, the extra disc’s worth of material and the vastly improved
re-mastering does—I regret to say—make acquisition of this box
a very worthwhile prospect.