The Busch-Serkin Duo Live
CD 1 [72:38]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonata for pianoforte and violin in E flat major K380 (K 374f) (1781) [16:23]
Sonata for pianoforte and violin in E flat major K481 (1785) [22:28]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Rondo for pianoforte and violin in B minor (Rondeau Brillant) D895 (1826) [13:00]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for pianoforte and violin No.3 in D minor Op.108 (1886-88) [20:41]
CD 2 [71:20]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata for violin and keyboard No.3 in E major, BWV 1016 [17:31]
Adolf BUSCH (1891-1952)
Violin Sonata No.2 in A minor Op.56 (1941) [26:26]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Violin Sonata No.2 in D minor Op.121 (1851) [27:22]
CD 3 [77:30]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1828)
Violin Sonata No.10 in G major Op.96 (1812) [27:42]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Violin Sonata No.1 in A minor Op.105 (1851) [15:22]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Violin Sonata in A minor D385 (1816) [18:03]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata in G minor for solo violin BWV1001 [16:20]
CD 4 [74:02]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1828)
Violin Sonata No.8 in G major Op.30 No.3 (1801-02) [15:41]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonata for pianoforte and violin in G major K379 (1781) [16:04]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata for pianoforte and violin No.3 in D minor Op.108 (1886-88) [21:18]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Fantasie in C major D934 (1827) [20:49]
Adolf Busch (violin)
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
rec. 1934-50, live, The Library of Congress, Washington, except Brahms Sonata 3 (Edinburgh Festival) and Bach’s Sonata in G minor (Copenhagen—except the Adagio)
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1244 [4 CDs: 72:38 + 71:20 + 77:30 + 74:02]

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 as well.

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.

Jonathan Woolf

Acquisition of this box is a very worthwhile prospect.