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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 12/1 (1797/98) [17:45]
Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, ‘Spring’ (1801) [23:48]
Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96 (1812) [28:21]
Adolf Busch (violin)
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
rec. October 1951, Dummerston, Vermont, USA
BIDDULPH 85004-2 [69:56]

These three sonata recordings were made in Adolf Busch’s Vermont property in 1951 – in his barn to be exact, where a recording studio had been set up. It was the first time that Busch worked on tape, allowing splices, which must have been a refreshing change for him. Ill health was taking a toll and he was die the following year so there is something of a Last Testament aura about these recordings, however sentimental that might seem. They were overseen by David Oppenheim, who is best remembered as a distinguished clarinettist.

Two of the sonatas were released on CBS/Sony LPs but only many decades later, and the Spring Sonata is making its first appearance. The Busch discography has been materially advantaged in recent years because of the existence of rare, in-concert and private recordings but that means that collectors need to exercise a certain degree of caution so that they don’t unnecessarily duplicate performances. In this case the only chance of that is if you have the original LPs. Recently Pristine Audio (see review) has released Busch’s 1937 NBC broadcast reading of Op.12 No.1 so that fruitful comparison can be made between that and the Biddulph transfer. The recordings evince very similar approaches and largely unchanged conceptions. The sound is forward in the Dummerston barn, though it’s not especially warm, but Busch and Serkin characterise the variations with great acumen and Busch’s long bow technique brings great rewards in the slow variations. The finale is buoyant and exciting though Busch isn’t invariably dead centre of the note.

As with Op.12/1 it was fortunate that Busch and Serkin were taped in the Op.96 sonata as they otherwise left behind no commercial recording. What does exist is a live Library of Congress performance from 1950 (on both Music & Arts and Pristine Audio). In both performances the high point is the phrasing in the slow movement and if Busch is not always quite steady in places, the reading is elevated in feeling and noble in execution. It’s noticeable too that his vibrato widens appreciably here. With Serkin playing with both discretion and conviction this is another beautiful performance, its passing flaws an inevitable corollary of age and physical frailty.

In his notes Tully Potter suggests that the Spring sonata was intended for the artists themselves and not for release. The sound quality is, in any case, dimmer than in the published sonatas. If you really listen you can hear some hum and hiss too, a product of the source material not the acetate of the recording that was presented to Busch and which was used for this transfer. Busch and Serkin’s famous 1933 HMV recording is a famous example of their collaboration, and it has fortunately been augmented by the 1937 NBC reading on Pristine Audio and now this 1951 one. The conception, once again, is very similar in all cases. The slow movement is typically ardent. There’s a very brief patch of damage but it passes swiftly. Busch’s bow is unsteady at the very end of this movement, but he and Serkin compensate in the Scherzo where they, as always, relish Beethoven’s rhythmic jokes. They are the very opposite of po-faced duos in this movement who try to smooth things out. Busch is under the note in the finale, but the tempo is fine, and Serkin is more than fine.

This is the first CD release for Op.12/1 and Op.96 and, as noted, the first ever release of the Spring. For all manner of reasons this isn’t a disc for everyday listening, but it makes a strong claim on the Busch admirer who will trade off imperfections for the honesty and judicious truthfulness of his performances.

Jonathan Woolf

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