The Busch Quartet plays BRAHMS = String Quartet in C Minor; String Quartet in A Minor; String Quartet in B-flat Major; Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor – Rudolf Serkin, p./ Busch String Q. – Pristine Audio (2 CDs)

The Busch Quartet plays BRAHMS = String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1; String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2; String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 67; Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25 – Rudolf Serkin, piano/ Busch String Quartet – Pristine Audio Ambient Stereo PACM 091A/B  (2 CDs) TT: 2:13:36 [avail. in various versions from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

By the 1920s, the string ensembles led by Adolf Busch (1891-1952) attained the highest reputation in Europe. By the early 1930’s the Busch String Quartet felt ready to record their repertory for HMV, of which the Brahms C Minor Quartet (19, 23 September 1932) provides a classic example. Noted for their chiseled and elastic lines, the Busch Quartet does indulge occasionally in Romantic vestiges in terms of portamento and varied application of vibrato, but the lyrical tension of their readings never wavers.

The C Minor Quartet and A Minor Quartet of 1873 represent the first “public” expressions of the composer’s thoughts in the string quartet medium, despite the fact that he created some twenty he considered unworthy of publication. The C Minor seems the more “symphonic” of the two, especially in its outer movements. The Busch ensemble – Busch and Goesta Andreasson, violins; Karl Doktor, viola; and Hermann Busch, cello – urge the first movement eighth notes with restless angst. The move to E-flat Major (lusingando) offers a false respite, offset by deeply ominous, magisterial tones from Hermann Busch. Restoration engineer Andrew Rose has added an ambient stereo effect that broadens the sonic thrust of this reading of the intense development section, which belies its age.  Adolf Busch himself delivers a spellbinding concertante violin part, miraculously blended into his ensemble while still retaining his “solo” status.

The bucolic second movement Romanze in A-flat Major projects an arresting, intimate serenity where before all was seeking urgency. The Busch play mostly unisono, with an occasional suggestion of a horn call. We can hear the “romantic” slides in the interior strings. The last pages of this reading justify the price of a ticket. Typical of Brahms, he replaces the traditional scherzo with an Allegretto molto moderato that might serve as a dirge-like intermezzo that wavers between C Minor and a darker F Minor.  The melodic line keeps moving downward to Hermann Busch’s weighty cello. Only the middle section relents in this gloomy descent does there emerge a melancholy sunshine beautifully harmonized by the Busch Quartet, soon yielding to the clouds. The last movement, an upbeat, fiery Allegro that recasts, polyphonically, materials from the opening movement, exploits the great gift of the Busch Quartet, their equality of the four parts. Surely having implemented “lessons” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Brahms moves his ascending figures through E-flat to reach an assertive C Major, a resolution the Busch Quartet has made especially triumphant.

The A Minor Quartet receives (19 April 1947) equally sympathetic treatment, beginning in its Schubertian Allegro non troppo, which likes to juxtapose duple and triple meters while Busch himself sings a lovely cantilena. In this recording, the fine viola work comes courtesy of Hugo Gottesmann, with deft interior support from second violin Ernest Drucker. Once more, the heart of the music lies in its slowly swooning movement, Andante moderato, an extended song interrupted by a passionate recollection. Schubert and Mendelssohn, respectively, seem to influence the Quasi Minuetto movement, a dream in Technicolor that gives way to a scampering Trio section marked by tip of bow playing of swift certitude.  The forceful Finale: Allegro non assai plows forth in triple meter, with Busch and Gottesman’s setting the rustic dance in vigorous Haydn style. The players employ a rasping attack that creates a nervous tension even in the sweeter episodes.  The inexorable build up to the theme’s final transformation occurs so smoothly, we hardly realize that the last pages carry us to a whirlwind conclusion.

The 1875 B-flat Major Quartet exudes an air of relaxation, despite the classical austerity of form Brahms had achieved. The combination of deep song and metric intricacy – 2/4 vs. 6/8 –  appeals to the Busch players (rec. 17, 21 May 1949), who deliver a first movement Vivace of bright intensity. Bruno Straussmann executes the tight filigree of the galloping second violin part. The exquisite polyphony quite resonates in this remastering, pungent and swift. The instruments play double-stops in the Andante, and the cantabile song must rise out of a thick haze.  The almost static rhythmic pulse yields to moments of sighing melancholy reminiscent of Schumann. Violist Gottesmann dominates the Agitato movement, whose “real” character Brahms indicates as Allegretto non troppo, with all the other strings muted, sometimes in canon.  The resultant transparency and delicacy of sound remains remarkable by any standard.  The last movement, Poco Allegretto con variazioni, strolls with bucolic security, led on the top voice by a singing Adolf Busch soon answered by Hermann Busch under plucked strings. Even in the course of minor mode variants the optimism of the excursion prevails. So expressively gripping and enchanted has been the vista that we hardly realize the coda is upon us.

For the Brahms 1861 Piano Quartet in G Minor (25-26 May 1949), son-in-law Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) joins the reduced Busch ensemble, careful to balance his wonted percussive power to suit the “symphonic” occasion. The first movement proves quite expansive, with Brahms having devoted 80 bars to the secondary subject.  Contrarily, in the Intermezzo movement, the strings mute their sonority for the keyboard arpeggios, while duple and triple meters collide and resolve themselves in typical Brahms invention. The Busch players and Serkin realize the lilted march and glibly volatile Trio with canny schwung, preparing us for the more symphonic strains in the (martial) Andante and the wild Gypsy Rondo finale, whose 2/4 dactyls sting and excite the ear in six repeats of the main idea. In the course of the mad Csardas, Serkin has his cadenza, thoroughly imitating the gypsy cimbalom and its invitation to rustic revelries. Quite a ride, especially when the monster coda demands the musicians’ afterburners!

—Gary Lemco

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