Busch Quartet Plays Brahms – Piano Quartet No. 1, String Sextet No. 1 – Pristine Audio

by | Jul 10, 2024 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BUSCH QUARTET plays BRAHMS – Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op. 25; String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18 – Pristine Audio PACM 124 (70:36) [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Producer Andrew Rose, in tandem with the Max-Reger-Institute and Busch Brothers Archive, presents two concerts from the 1949 Strasbourg Music Festival, the “Festival de Musique Romantique.” The two Brahms works restored here date, respectively, from 11 and 13 June 1949, and involve – for the 1861 Quartet – Adolf Busch, violin; Hugo Gottesmann, viola; Herman Busch, cello; and Rudolf Serkin, piano. The dramatic and virtuoso throes of the Op. 25 Piano Quartet were apparently still fresh in the minds and fingers of the participants, who had recorded the work for EMI but two weeks prior, 25-26 May 1949.

The dark tenor of the first movement, Allegro, rises from the cello and proceeds in octaves to Serkin’s keyboard. While the initial theme dominates the movement, Brahms involves a total of five interlocking motifs, mainly contrasting modes of G with modes of D. Despite the persistent swish of the original shellacs, the lushness and compelling nostalgia in Brahms shine through by virtue of a thoroughly stylish, unified ensemble. The sonority emanating from Herman Busch’s cello proves insistently affecting. The piano part, debuted respectively by Clara Schumann and Brahms himself, demands a potent, stylistically flexible technique. The group builds a terrific tension as it approaches the coda, dying away in a resignedly ambiguous G minor chord.

The second movement Intermezzo no less poses a duality in the key of C, with repeated eighth notes supporting a nasal tune that is soon plucked in the strings and intoned high in the keyboard. The compound triple meter establishes a kind of lyrical urgency to the occasion, often deepened by the Herman Busch cello. The A-flat major Trio offers two themes (the second in E major) in rhythmic overlap, much in the manner of Schumann. The violin of Adolf Busch projects a stringent tone that diminishes the sentimentality of the otherwise wistful riffs. The dynamic tension increases as the music proceeds, with Serkin’s part attempting to lighten the somber procession. The coda adds a kind of lyrical epilogue that floats into the distance. 

Portrait of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

The Andante movement sets out to develop in two distinct moods, the first passionately lyrical, in E-flat major. Echoes from the Intermezzo linger, and the music begins a dire transition to C major. The dotted rhythm will impose a martial, resolute sensibility, con moto, on the music, even if the first statement, muted, only anticipates the ff explosive power awaiting development. The slashing strokes from the strings and Serkin’s hammered chords complete the hued energies in these thematic statements. The Brahms counterpoint will illuminate the texture, as well the piano’s capacity for expressive parlando. The keys of C and E-flat major compete for emotional hegemony, and the mix assumes a momentary dissonance, as Adolf Busch applies his open G to the sonic palette. The long-held coda takes us to the lusty Rondo alla Zingharese. Presto last movement, a real tour-de-force that will turn to after-burners before it is through. Serkin sheer speed of execution should have listeners’ jaws dropping, even as the assisting string members never miss a beat. The loose, rotating ABA format drips with gypsy sentiment as well as explosive athleticism. At their most sweetly evocative, we feel transported to the Hungarian taverns of the composer’s youth. The panoply of colors, as we Brahms enthusiasts know, inspired Otto Klemperer to request that Arnold Schoenberg transcribe the work for full orchestra. The last pages run rampant in a frenzied imitation of Franz Liszt, and their collaborative brio quite sweeps the Strasbourg audience away. 

The String Sextet No.1 in B-flat Major is the 1860 product of the composer’s tenure at the Royal Court of Detmold. For Brahms, this summer work allowed him to explore a medium his idol – and feared predecessor – Beethoven had not crafted, even as Brahms was refining his compositional skills in ensembles ever closer to the symphony, as he had already accomplished in his pair of serenades. While violinist Joseph Joachim expressed a Stoic optimism about the score, Clara Schumann allowed herself an exuberant response: “It was even more beautiful than I had anticipated, and my expectations had been high.” Adolf had been approached by Strasbourg Music Festival founder Lucien-Marie Pautrier specifically to program this Brahms opus, and so Busch invited violist Albert Bertschmann of the Basel Orchester-Gesellschaft and cellist August Wenziger from Basel to complement the ensemble. 

The opening movement, Allegro ma non troppo, projects a tender anguish in its application of cross rhythms, indulging the Brahms penchant for triplet figures, the metrics somewhat ambiguous, as written in three but the theme’s melos falling comfortably in unit of four. The sonic sloughing from the old acetates notwithstanding, the rich interplay of the Brahms counterpoints and sequential repetitions advances in the minor mode, creating an eerie tension in music of intimate poignancy, especially in the viola parts.

The second movement, Andante ma moderato, set in D minor, has the viola – likely guest Bertschmann – intone a haunted theme that will engender six variations. A grim, martial air advances with fervent resolve, the heat’s emanating from the extremes of the string spectrum, high violins and low cellos. When the ensemble plays in rare unison, the sonority assumes a symphonic grandeur that anticipates the power of the composer’s writing in the later opera. The use of drone effects and harmonics in the late variation creates an otherworldly atmosphere, just prior to the cellos’ entry that returns to a grateful earth. That folk impulse expands in the skittish Scherzo: Allegro molto, in F major, likely a rustic Hungarian tune that quite explodes in accented, boisterous energy. For a brief moment Brahms dallies in C major in the Trio, whose thematic curve intrudes into the coda. For his last movement, Brahms creates an extended Rondo: Allegretto e grazioso, that likes to modulate into C and F major, with cyclical, eventual resolutions in the home key of B-flat major. Syncopations and pizzicato effects abound, as the music assumes a playfully virtuosic turn, gathering the kind of affectionate momentum guaranteed to carry the music to a convincing conclusion. Great musicianship, though the sonic quality may discourage all but devoted Busch Quartet acolytes.

—Gary Lemco


Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op. 25
Rudolf Serkin, piano, Albert Bertschmann, viola

String Sextet No. 1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 18
Albert Bertschamn, viola/ August Wenzinger, cello

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