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Budapest introuvables PACM113

Budapest Quartet
Josef Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartet No 43 in G major, Hob.III:58 [Op 54 No 1] (1788)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
String Quartet No 13 in A minor, D804, Op 29 ‘Rosamunde’ (1824)
String Quartet No 12 in C minor, D703 ‘Quartettsatz’ (1820)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
String Quartet No 1 in E-flat major, Op 12 (1829)
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
String Quartet No 1 in D major, Op 11; Andante cantabile (1871)
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
String Sextet in A major, Op 48 (1878)
Bela Bartók (1881-1945)
String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op 17 (1917)
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903)
Italian Serenade in G major (1887)
Watson Forbes (viola II) and John Moore (cello II): Dvořák
rec. 1934-38, Abbey Road Studio, London, UK; November 1932, Beethovensaal, Berlin, Germany (Wolf)

There are still some huge lacunae in the legacies of major ensembles and a great deal remains to be done to restore their 78rpm legacies. Take the Budapest Quartet, a famous ensemble whose discs date back to the mid-1920s. Their later incarnation has been generally well served and you can find many of those recordings on CD. But the earlier line-up of the group, when it still sported one Hungarian in the form of István Ipólyi, was for many years overlooked. These were the discs from the 30s which is what we have here. It was Pristine Audio who began addressing this whole situation on PACM098, a twofer dedicated to the group’s recordings made between 1926-29 (review) by the then all-Hungarian ensemble.

Given the hitherto very uneven and unsatisfactory nature of this legacy this new twofer is all the more valuable. Whether they have never seen CD or even LP transfer (Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák) or have been only on LP, or on obscure or out of print CDs, this twofer restores an important body of recordings by one of the leading quartets of its time, in the years 1932-38, soon to become even more internationally admired in their all-Russian, wartime and post-war line-up.

Apart from the Wolf Italian Serenade, all the recordings were made in Abbey Road, London. It’s rather strange, given the existence of the Pro Arte’s Haydn series for HMV, that the Budapest was asked to record the Quartet in G major, Hob. III:58. This was made fewer than three years after the Pro Arte’s recording of the work – and many others were to follow of course. The Budapest realisation was also released on an HMV DB, as the Pro Arte’s had been. That said, the Budapest ethos was wholly different, with greater amplitude and robustness but with fine tonal resources and plenty of polish. They re-recorded Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet in the Library of Congress in 1953 but this April 1934 version has an ease and naturalness of execution, allied to a persuasive flow, that mark it out as special. The ensemble didn’t record much Mendelssohn after the war which makes the First Quartet here so valuable – they did record the Canzonetta in the Library of Congress as they had in the studio in 1928. Their way with the quartet is splendidly blithe with real velocity in the faster music. Ideally placed with regard to Tchaikovsky they are deftly sonorous in the Andante cantabile.

A crisp Quartettsatz is followed by Dvořák’s Sextet with Watson Forbes (viola II) and John Moore (cello II), both later to be well-known for their participation in the Aeolian Quartet though at the time they were part of George Stratton’s quartet, the one that recorded Elgar’s Quartet and Piano Quintet, with Harriet Cohen. The corporate rhythm is excellent and there’s real heft in the Dumka whilst the finale’s variations are nicely delineated. I have to admit, though, that it’s never been a work I’ve much liked. Bartók’s Second Quartet is another matter, first recorded by the Amar-Hindemith Quartet in 1926 (review). The Budapest make the older team sound technically maladroit (though they weren’t) with their outer movement tempi – though the aesthetic approach of both groups was wholly dissimilar - and generate an intensity in the Lento finale that, because of their strongly vibrated corporate qualities, brings the music vividly to life. The light-hearted Wolf was made just in time; Berlin in 1933 would not have been as hospitable to the group.

Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are as usual first-class: warm sounding and not minimising such surface noise as there is in the interests of ‘smoothness’. He also contributes a brief introduction to these rare recordings, now made available at a stroke to a wide audience.

Jonathan Woolf

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