The Budapest String Quartet: Early Recordings = HAYDN, MOZART, DITTERSDORF, DVORAK, BORODIN, SCHUBERT, MENDELSSOHN & TCHAIKOVSKY – Pristine Audio (2 discs)

by | Aug 14, 2015 | Classical Reissue Reviews

The Budapest String Quartet: Early Recordings = HAYDN: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 1; DITTERSDORF: Allegro (Finale) from String Quartet No. 1 in D Major; MOZART: Quartet No. 17 in B-flat Major, K. 458 “Hunt”; DVORAK: String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 “American”; BORODIN: Nocturne from String Quartet No. 2 in D; SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden”; MENDELSSOHN: Canzonetta from Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 12; TCHAIKOVSKY: String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 22 – Pristine Audio PACM 098, TT: 2:35:50 [avail. in various formats from] ****:

Assembled from electrical inscriptions, 1926-1929, this extensive set dedicated to The Budapest String Quartet (1917-1967) concentrates on the ensemble’s early years, when shifts in the originally Hungarian ensemble had not yet resulted in an all-Russian personnel.  The Quartet members – Emil Hauser and Imre Pogeny, violins; Istvan Ipolyi, viola; and Harry Son, cello – established a homogeneous, albeit Old-World sound – listen to their Borodin Nocturne – while having instituted a democratic process for the selection of repertory. By the 1928 inscriptions, Russian violinist Joseph Roisman had already “infiltrated” the group in the second violin position.  Recording producer and engineer Mark Obert-Thorn notes that the works by Haydn, Dittersdorf, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky appear for the first time in the CD format, not having been reissued since their 78 rpm incarnation.

The Mozart “Hunt” Quartet from 1926 presents a fine example of the Budapest style at the time, with often deliberate, slowly articulated phraseology – particularly in the Menuetto movement – and a high thin, reedy sound from Emil Hauser.  The “period” aspects of the Romantic style – rubato, hefty vibrato, and portamento – emerge rather par for the course. The clear articulation in the Adagio movement simultaneously emphasizes Mozart’s long, interweaving melodic lines and their passing harmonic audacities. Harry Son’s cello part adds a piquant lyricism to the whole. The fleet Allegro assai, for all its concertante brilliance, proffers passing, ghostly harmonies touched by a sense of personal anguish.

The last movement of Dittersdorf Quartet in G (1926) clearly “borrows” motifs from Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G, the final movement. But the playing, like that of the Haydn, also from February 1926, proves so infectious that we care not whether allusion or plagiarism operates here. The Dvorak performance from 16 February 1926 obviously predates the Russians’ CBS LP (ML 5143) which I owned and became my staple recording. Here, in their Hungarian guise, the players lilt and inflect Dvorak’s already sentimental lines in the Lento with a studied treacle that might not agree with contemporary tastes.  Yet Emil Hauser and Imre Pogeny make a convincing duet against the ostinato figures in the bass line. The Scherzo moves in rather pesant figures, studied and tensely ponderous, with another of those “ghostly” effects proffered in the Trio, aligning Dvorak more with Weber and the dark Romantics. Only the exuberant Finale retains a jovial character, a radiance allotted to this vivacious dance music that had eluded the earlier movements.  The caesura in the flow of the line makes us think that Mengelberg led this performance! For Disc 1, the forever lovely Nocturne by Borodin (23 January 1928) makes a perfect encore, especially for the artistry of the two low instruments, courtesy of Ipolyi and Son.

Curiously in the 1950s CBS LP of “Budapest Quartet Encores” (ML 5116), only the Borodin and Mendelssohn Canzonetta had renewed inscription from the all-Russian ensemble. That disc made us wish for a complete version of the Franck Quartet in the Budapest pantheon of recordings.  With Roisman in the second violin chair, we might grant a degree of crisper, cleaner articulation In the Mendelssohn (23 January 1928) than we had been hearing in the 1926 shellacs. I recently aired the recording of the 1874 Tchaikovsky F Major Quartet, an opus the composer held in high esteem.  The February 1929 recording has been restored with disarming clarity of line, so the music’s diverse virtues shine, as the opening quasi cadenza sets a powerful mood. The interior movements’ asymmetries emerge in well defined sonics. Typically, Tchaikovsky invokes contrapuntal means in the last movement to “legitimize” his Classical credentials.  Given Tchaikovsky’s admiration of Beethoven – “there are no wasted motions in his music, no filler,” exclaimed Tchaikovsky  – it seems appropriate that much of this quartet – especially in the metrics of the Scherzo – resonates with a confidence and sense of structure associated with the Bonn master.

From the opening, macabre fanfare, the Budapest Quartet’s inscription (January 1928) of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet of 1826 bears the imprimatur of a fine performance.  Only the “Death” lyric of the Matthias Claudius poem is cited by Schubert from his own song, from which the g minor second movement draws its impetus.  The rhythm bears a family resemblance to the Allegretto of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. Of the variations that follow, only the fourth permits a ray of sunshine in G Major; but prior to that hopefulness, Emil Hauser has intoned some fine lyricism, along with Son and Ipolyi.

The last two movements exploit a more “symphonic” sound, so no wonder Mahler found the entire work worthy of orchestral treatment. The haunted character of the Scherzo does little to relieve the immanence of Death. Is the Trio section anything more than a seduction of the Maiden by Death, in the same vein as the Elf-King’s overtures to the sickly boy in Der Erlkoenig? The combination of hunting-motif and eerie tarantella of the last movement offers a Presto of convincing, colorful bravura from the Budapest ensemble, here posing a serious rival to the equally respected inscription by the Busch String Quartet.

—Gary Lemco



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