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Adolf BUSCH (1891-1952)
Piano Trio op. 15 in A minor [28:11]
Piano Trio op. 48 in C minor [30:56]
Piano Quartet op. 59 in B minor [40:06]
Ravinia Trio (Saiko Sasaki (piano), Rainer Schmidt (violin), Helmut Menzler (cello))
Ulrich Eichenauer (viola)
rec. 5-8 September 2009 (op. 15), 11-12 March (op. 48), 3-4 January 2011 (op. 59), Studio 1, Radiostudio Zürich, Switzerland
CPO 777 528-2 [59:07 + 40:06]

The name Adolf Busch is not unfamiliar today, but is perhaps better known as that of the first violin of the Busch String Quartet than as a composer. He founded the quartet after World War I, and it remained in existence until 1952, a year before his death. In 1927, with the rise of Hitler, Busch decided he could not stay in Germany, so emigrated to Switzerland. He wasn’t of Jewish descent, but firmly opposed Nazism from the outset. On the outbreak of World War II, he emigrated to the USA, eventually settling in Vermont. He was the son of the luthier Wilhelm Busch, brother of conductor Fritz, cellist Hermann, pianist Heinrich, and actor Willi, as well as grandfather of pianist Peter Serkin.

As a composer, Busch was largely influenced by Max Reger (1873-1916), a fellow-German who saw himself as being part of the tradition of Beethoven and Brahms, often combining the classical structures of these composers with the extended harmonies of Liszt and Wagner. Busch composed the Piano Trio op. 48 in 1919 in Bonn – a fully-fledged work in four movements – and it was premiered some years later in Bochum. While the presence of Reger is very much to the fore in the musical language used, so, too, is the spirit of Brahms, whose melancholy in any similar minor-key composition is also felt. In accordance with the tempo indication (Allegro agitato) the first movement, while structurally clear-cut, does portray a troubled and shifting mood, despite its calm close in the major key. A rapid Scherzo follows, vaguely reminiscent of the similar movement in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2, and here cast in an unusually remote key – F minor. The Trio is decidedly more tranquil, before the urgency of the opening returns, only to be briefly interrupted by the calmer Trio section. The slow movement (Largo) shows Busch at his most harmonically flexible so far, with a constantly-shifting chromaticism that makes it more difficult to elicit a clear melodic line, until just a few bars from the close. The finale shows an immediate stylistic affinity with Reger, in its use or counterpoint, and fugal technique. Busch combines this with the more lyrical elements from sonata-form, while incorporating a slower ‘Andante sostenuto’ middle section. The opening is recapitulated and culminates in a imposing conclusion, which sounds rather like a Bach fugue unravelling at the end, with the obligatory ‘tierce de Picardie’ (a major chord ending a piece in a minor key) added for good effect.

The Piano Trio op.48 in C minor was composed in 1931 in Basel, and is once more a four-movement work, although the slow movement and Scherzo have now swapped places. The opening ‘Allegro’ stills relies on the fluid chromaticism of its predecessor, but builds on this to greater effect, and which is enhanced by a more independent use of each of the three instruments. Fugal elements become integrated more seamlessly, and their use is now less self-conscious and appears a more natural stylistic evolution. In fact the writing now seems on an altogether larger canvas, and the conclusion is that much more effective now. The ensuing slow movement continues in the same vein, but there is greater harmonic stability and a simplicity, which better suits the essentially singing-style of this highly-expressive writing. The calm is immediately broken by the rhythmic intricacies at the start of the Scherzo, which itself is somewhat rudely interrupted by another contrapuntal section, in the form of the Trio, which essentially matches the Scherzo in tempo. The halting rhythms of the latter then return to round off this effective movement. The finale immediately starts off in the tonic major (C), and seems to reflect all that has gone before, both stylistically, emotionally, and even thematically. Harmonically more restrained, it relies on some contrapuntal devices to add cohesion, like pedal points, and even the returning theme of the slow movement, but now in the form of a strict canon, which, rather as Franck does in the corresponding movement of his Violin Sonata, almost passes by unnoticed, rather than some kind of academic device. This movement in particular really shows the increased degree of maturity between the two Piano Trios, separated as they are by some twelve years, and this can largely be attributed to Busch’s study of Bach’s music at the time.

The Piano Quartet op. 59 in B minor was composed during Busch’s American period, in response to a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, an American pianist and patron of the Arts, especially chamber music, and was first performed in the Music Hall of the Library of Congress in Washington, 1945. As with the Piano Trio in C minor, it came another twelve years later, and it is evident that, during his stateside exile, Busch’s works seem to have taken on a greater structural terseness of the sort that had long become standard practice in Arnold Schoenberg’s works, but without adopting his increasingly atonal musical language or dodecaphony. It is more palpable here in its sense of equilibrium between ascending and descending scales, large and small intervals, and ‘cantabile’ lines with their ornamental enhancements. In one sense Busch now looks back towards Brahms and his chamber music, but the language and motivic development have clearly moved forward. All four instruments are equal protagonists in the ensemble, and harmonic and formal construction give way to counterpoint, and motivic manipulation, again something in principle which Schoenberg and serial music greatly relied on. The difference, though, between Busch and his Austrian contemporary, was that while Schoenberg, during his American exile, produced some works that looked back towards his pre-serialism past, Busch drew on his past to forge, for him, a new and ever-developing musical language.

The opening movement (Con passione) certainly opens fervently enough. It is clear that Busch’s musical language has developed from that of the earlier Trio in C minor but it is still couched in a decidedly tonal regime, particularly the second-subject group, and there are frequent moments of great expression. Chromaticism still pervades, both harmonically and melodically, and there is a decisive and effective close. The slow movement (Largo ed espressivo) opens with a lovely outpouring for the piano alone, and initially could have come straight from the pen of Grieg, with its distinctive harmonic progressions. This lasts, in fact, just over a minute and a half, before the other instruments enter. The calm of the opening is rarely disturbed and this movement of simple heartfelt sincerity is surely the jewel in the crown on this double-CD. At times, the ensuing Scherzo (Vivace) has echoes of Shostakovich in the writing, whereas the intervening Trio inhabits a somewhat different sound-world. The finale, at just over thirteen minutes, is the longest single movement of any of the three works on the CD and provides the ideal culmination for what has gone before. Cast in two distinct sections (Moderato, un poco sostenuto ma con fuoco – Con fuoco, ma non troppo presto), it increasingly alludes to the theme of the slow movement, as if this might return triumphant at the final apotheosis, but, with about a minute to run, Busch decides on a different, though still imposingly grandiose conclusion, even if the dénouement, when it finally comes, and as is Busch’s wont, is characteristically abrupt, and without pandering to the clear opportunity for a big major-key ending.

The performance and recording are first-rate throughout, and, while Dominik Sackmann’s exhaustive sleeve-notes occasionally suffer at the hands of a not always totally idiomatic English translation, this 2 CD set is certainly a valuable addition to the catalogue. There is a growing body of composers whose works, originally condemned under the Nazi regime, are now getting a fairer representation on CD, but Adolf Busch not only chose to distance himself from this, while a non-Jew, but also his music speaks with a distinct voice, for which these three works recorded here are fine ambassadors, not only for their inherent musical quality and interest, but also because they display a distinct line of musical development which didn’t eventually ally itself with the fetters of serialism.

Philip R Buttall



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