The Budapest String Quartet with Rudolph Serkin = MENDELSSOHN, SCHUMANN:  String Quartets, Piano Quintet – Budapest String Quartet/ Rudolf Serkin, piano – Praga Digitals

 The Budapest String Quartet = MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1; SCHUMANN: String Quartet in a minor, Op. 41, No. 1; Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 – Budapest String Quartet/ Rudolf Serkin, piano – Praga Digitals  PRD 250 391, 82:29 (11/24/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] *****:

Classic Budapest Quartet performances showcase their Strads in brilliant harmony in Mendelssohn and Schumann.

In various incarnations, the Budapest String Quartet endured 1917-1967.  Its originally “Hungarian” character evolved into a Russian ensemble whose repute extended to America, and they accepted the request to perform at the Library of Congress in Coolidge Auditorium on Stradivarius instruments, and their live concerts had the good fortune to have been recorded.

The opening 1838 Mendelssohn Quartet in D Major (13 November 1959) provides a vivacious case in point for the ensemble’s thoroughly homogeneous sound and alertness of response, especially when first violin Joseph Roisman (1900-1974) maintained good intonation. The vivacious Molto allegro vivace enjoys rapid, rocket figures in the first violin and tender reflection from Boris Kroyt’s viola.  The broad structure of the music wants to break out beyond the sonata-form to become an exuberant rhapsody whose multifarious themes find connection through eighth note runs. The Menuetto in the minor key moves in a hazy motion, contrasting with one of Mendelssohn’s innumerable fairy-atmosphere pieces, the Trio, this time with a drone bass.  The heart of the quartet, the Andante espesssivo con moto, offers a lovely song without words built on two themes, wherein the sixteenth note motif from second violin Alexander Schneider (1908-1993) becomes ubiquitous. Roisman’s violin increases the intensity to a rare moment of Mendelssohn anguish before the music dies away. The last movement Presto con moto presents a patented sonata-rondo that luxuriates in counterpoint, almost a tarantella a la the Italian Symphony.  As in the first movement, the rich sonority of the ensemble means to achieve an “orchestral” effect. The musical eddies that pass by our mesmerized ears testify to a buoyant sense of musical style thoroughly comfortable in its Romantic idiom.

The 5 October 1961 live performance of the 1842 Schumann a minor Quartet opens with highly contrapuntal Introduzione that radiates Schumann’s admiration for Bach, a trait he shares with his entire Op. 41 dedicatee, Mendelssohn.  The Allegro espesssivo (in 6/8) proper begins in F Major, a “bitonal” ploy in which the composer often engages.  Mischa Schneider’s resonant cello leads many of the canonic effects that ensue. The repeated “drooping” theme seems typical of Schumann’s gentle nature, his Eusebius side.  The spirit of Mendelssohn clearly dominates the Scherzo in a minor: Presto – Intermezzo. An overt drum-beat permeates the progression, in 6/8, but its contrasting intermezzo—in the manner of a chorale—moves in 2/2.  The Adagio (in 4/4) extends its song without words” into over two octaves, resembles moments of the Beethoven Ninth, conceived as a contrapuntal piano transcription made in to a string quartet.  The last movement, Presto in a minor, moves in 2/2, rather acerbic in motion and rife with rustic energy. Kroyt’s viola keeps us alert. Before Schumann ends it all, he travels into A Major for a bagpipe moments, then to a bravura conclusion that marks the Budapest Quartet as a virtuoso ensemble.

Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) enjoyed a long career, with a repute for aggressive, often percussive, keyboard virtuosity ameliorated by intellectual polish.  The 1842 Schumann Piano Quintet (13 November 1959) finds a true blending of forces, with Serkin’s tempering his dynamic to allow Mischa Schneider’s cello to utter the lovely secondary theme of the opening Allegro brillante. The keyboard declamations, however, do not stint on “symphonic” power.  Dense, sostenuto chords mark much of the texture, but no less beguiling is the duet for viola and cello.  Serkin, too, luxuriates in the artful songs Schumann dedicates to his favorite instrument.  The peroration to the coda truly gallops to a resounding finish.

The In modo d’una Marcia first struck me in orchestral guise, via Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat, with Lugosi and Karloff.  In rondo form, the music has a funereal anguish, what conductor Igor Markevitch once called “a stroll through the gardens of death.”  The middle section possesses a dream-vision character Schumann patented among his capacities for “childlike wonder.”  Whatever sinister elements the da capo contains, Schumann’s contrapuntal energy transforms it into a dazzling showpiece for the entire ensemble. Virtuosity in spades defines the Scherzo: Molto vivace, with whirling, staccato scales and two trios, in G-flat and A-flat, respectively.  Schumann seems to have intregrated lessons from both Bach and Mozart for his grand finale: Allegro ma non troppo in E-flat Major. The key theme emerges in Mozart’s g minor and then in d minor. The secondary melody Schumann sets in G Major. Now, Bach emerges in textbook fashion with a fugue rife with strettti and pedal points on E-flat, in which first theme becomes a cantus firmus over which Schumann can indulge his melodic invention.  The piano part, marked con anima, has Serkin’s imposing chordal jubilation upon a polyphonic texture that has tragic undertones, the Mozart of the Jupiter Symphony.

— Gary Lemco

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