Arbiter Records 112

The Busch Quartet Live

  • 2 cd set. First publication: awarded the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis.
  • Released Nov 1, 1998
  • $36.98, free postage within the US
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Disc 1

winner: Deutsche Schallplattenpreis Beethoven String Quartet op. 59, no. 3 recorded in 1951; Beethoven String Trio op. 3 with Lotte Hammerschlag Bamberger, viola, recorded in 1944.

  1. Beethoven String Quartet op. 59, no. 3: I
  2. Beethoven String Quartet op. 59, no. 3: II
  3. Beethoven String Quartet op. 59, no. 3: III
  4. Beethoven String Quartet op. 59, no. 3: IV
  5. Beethoven String Trio op. 3: I
  6. Beethoven String Trio op. 3: II
  7. Beethoven String Trio op. 3: III
  8. Beethoven String Trio op. 3: IV
  9. Beethoven String Trio op. 3: V
  10. Beethoven String Trio op. 3: VI

Disc 2

Beethoven String Quartet op 130, recorded live in 1951; Mozart Piano Trio K. 564 with Rudolf Serkin, piano, recorded live in 1944.

  1. Beethoven String Quartet op 130: I
  2. Beethoven String Quartet op 130: II
  3. Beethoven String Quartet op 130: III
  4. Beethoven String Quartet op 130: IV
  5. Beethoven String Quartet op 130: V
  6. Beethoven String Quartet op 130: VI
  7. Mozart Piano Trio K. 564: I
  8. Mozart Piano Trio K. 564: II
  9. Mozart Piano Trio K. 564: III

Because of the whims of the recording industry, Adolf Busch (1891-1952) is known today for just one segment of his wide circle of activity. Those who value him as a chamber musician specialising in the Viennese classics will fall upon this set of CDs with delight. While noting that the performances come from the last decade of his life, when he was slightly in decline as a violinist, they will expect something special ã and they will be justified in that expectation. Perhaps they will also know Busch as a pioneer of the modern chamber orchestra movement, a marvellous performer of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and Dvorak with his Busch Chamber Players.

But there was far more to Adolf Busch than that, enough to make him, in the opinion of the present writer, the greatest German-born musician of the century. And so, before looking at these performances in a little more detail, it may be timely to knock some of the myths about him on the head. Busch the classical specialist was largely the creation of His Master’s Voice in London, which wanted him and his colleagues to record only Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. That they were equally skilled in Haydn, Mozart, Viotti, Boccherini, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Dvorak, Verdi, Reger and Busoni went largely unappreciated, although they were just managing to expand their recorded repertoire a little when Hitler’s war intervened. They were equally unlucky in America, when they were signed up by Columbia: an industry strike and wartime shortages again circumscribed their recording career.

To see Busch as a chamber musician is also an understatement. Certainly he loved playing chamber music more than anything else ã and he found that this repertoire contained the best music available to a violinist ã but he was also the greatest solo Bach player of his time and a leading concerto soloist who worked regularly with the most eminent conductors. No violinist in the Austro-German sphere excelled him in drawing power and it was a quirk of history that we were bequeathed so many concerto recordings by Kreisler, Huberman, Szigeti and Kulenkampff and so few by Busch, Thibaud, Dubois, Sammons or Goldberg. When, in 1942, Busch was finally able to record the Beethoven Concerto which he had practically owned for 30 years, he was treated unsympathetically by the producer. The result inevitably betrayed some nerves but was still one of the finest performances committed to disc. All the same, Busch forbade its release on the grounds that he was miked too closely in relation to the orchestra! As for his solo Bach, we have two complete recordings and various fragments; but the market place, which likes prodigies, dictated that Menuhin would be recorded in these seminal works a decade too soon, Enescu a decade too late and such fiddlers as Busch and Huberman only partially.

Then there was Busch the composer, who in 1933 was on the books of the leading publishers Simrock, Breitkopf & Hrtel and Eulenburg. He had already achieved considerable success and seemed on the threshold of a real break-through, when with typical courage he renounced his fatherland because of the new Nazi regime’s treatment of the Jews. This decision halved his income and lost him his main constituency as a composer. Outside the Austro-German world, he could empty a concert hall through programming a work by his hero Reger, let alone any of his own music. Even so, he persisted with composition because he had a genuine inner urge to express himself; and he wrote many beautiful things in his years of exile. The problem for Busch the composer is that no country has taken him up. In Germany he has not been forgiven for being right in the 1930s when so many were disgracefully wrong. In America, his refuge from the end of 1939, he was never quite accepted as a performer and was even less appreciated as a composer. In Britain and Italy he was popular as a violinist but was regarded with suspicion as a creative artist ã and in 1938 he renounced Italy because of its race laws. Not even in Decca’s Entartete Musik series has he found a place, for his compositions were not declared degenerate by the Nazis but were simply left to shrivel on the vine as publishers and concert organisers feared to promote them. Even in Switzerland, his favourite country, his cause has not been wholeheartedly espoused. He made Basel his domicile from 1927 and his European base from 1947; and in 1935 he took Swiss nationality, holding it jointly with U.S. citizenship from the early 1940s. He would have been happy to be claimed as a Swiss composer. It has taken a long time for the tide to turn but minor works by Busch have started appearing on CD. We must hope that some of his masterpieces, such as the Flute Quintet and the Sixth Psalm, will be given new life in this way.

Meanwhile we are left with Adolf Busch the classical violinist and chamber musician; and it says a good deal for the impact of his personality that he shines so brightly in this partial light. Brought up in relative poverty in the Rhineland, he was the second of five remarkable sons of a violin maker and repairer (elder brother Fritz was a conductor, Willi an actor, Heinrich a composer and Herman a cellist). Adolf proved a natural as a violinist from the age of three and retained certain self-taught traits to the end of his days. At 11 he began serious training at the Cologne Conservatory, where his teachers Willy Hess and Bram Eldering were both Joachim disciples. He would have studied with the great man himself, had Joachim not died in 1907. As it was, Busch met Joachim, had several chances to hear him play and was inspired by his example; but, although he always used the old German bow hold, he never submitted to the excesses of the Joachim school. His main teacher Eldering had also been a Hubay pupil and took a much freer approach to bowing than the staunch Joachimists. Busch developed a wonderful bowing arm and was the leading exponent of the long bow.

American critics in particular, with their Heifetz obsession, have misunderstood Busch and have related him not to the Austro-German predecessors and contemporaries whom he outclassed ã such as Burmester, Klingler and Kulenkampff ã but to French and Russian traditions quite alien to him. Even today American writers will refer to Busch’s ‘tonal limitations’, whereas to many European ears his is one of the most beautiful tones, with its plangent, almost viola-like middle and lower registers and its clear upper register. Busch admired Heifetz and when the Russian’s first records came out in Europe he was as amazed as anyone. He promptly acquired the score of one of the most difficult pieces, worked on it for a couple of weeks until he too could play it at that speed, then lost interest. He would never have wanted to play with Heifetz’s automatic E string sound. His candid opinion was that Heifetz had a left hand second to none but that everything he played came out sounding like Glazunov. Busch was nothing if not a stylist. He had little sympathy with French music but he played a great deal of Italian music, both old and new, always finding a glowing tone and beautiful cantilena for it. In the major concertos ã Bach, Viotti, Mozart, Beethoven, Kreutzer, Spohr, Mendelssohn, Joachim, Brahms, Dvorak, Busoni, Reger, Elgar ã he was scrupulous to vary his vibrato according to the content of the music. His vibrato was narrowest (or even non-existent) in Baroque music and widest in the sonatas of Schumann which he played so magnificently.

Along with Artur Schnabel and a few others, Busch was a pioneer of the typical chamber recital of today, in which three sonatas or string quartets are usually played. He and his duo partner from 1920, Rudolf Serkin, were largely responsible for demolishing the old-style violin recital, with its ragbag of a programme. From 1929 Busch and Serkin played all their duo repertoire by heart and made such an impact that more and more people followed their example (Schnabel was heard in similar programmes with Flesch or Huberman). Now, when this particular battle has long been won, we occasionally long for some of the short pieces which used to enliven a violin evening! Ironically, Busch’s own programmes were not at all stereotyped. In a duo programme, he might play a solo Bach work and Serkin might play something by Beethoven, Schubert or Reger.

A Busch Quartet evening could include a string duo by Viotti or Mozart, a piano or string trio, a quintet, sextet or octet. With Serkin as a ‘perfect fifth’, the Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak piano quintets were specialities. A wide range of piano quartets were performed and the Busch Quartet worked with some great wind and brass players over the years, including Viktor Pollatschek, Alexander Wunderer, Reginald Kell, Frederick Thurston, Simeon Bellison and Aubrey and Dennis Brain. From 1926 the usual line-up for piano trios was Serkin with Adolf and Herman Busch.

The performances on these CDs come from the ends of the final two eras in the Busch Quartet’s history. The first era lasted from 1912 to 1918, when Busch was working in Vienna and the quartet was the official ensemble of the Wiener Konzertvereinorchester and the Konzerthaus. In 1919 the Busch Quartet was founded and by the end of 1920 it had taken its most famous shape, with Gsta Andreasson as second violinist, Karl Doktor as violist and Paul Gr¸mmer as cellist (the latter two had been with Busch in Vienna). In 1930 Herman Busch came in and proved to be one of the great quartet cellists, more modern in approach than his teacher Gr¸mmer. In the 1939/40 season the ensemble was largely inactive as its members made their way to America; and much of the following season was lost when Busch suffered a heart attack.

By 1943/4 Andreasson had an onerous teaching post and Doktor was ailing, so the ensemble was disbanded at the end of that season. In the meantime Lotte Hammerschlag ã the only woman to play in the ensemble ã often substituted as violist. An experienced quartet player, she maintained the tradition of having a Viennese violist in the quartet; and she was on duty when Busch scheduled the early Op.3 string trio, as part of a series of Beethoven’s chamber music at The New Friends of Music in New York. Although Busch had played many string trios down the years, including virtually all of Beethoven’s, this was probably the only occasion on which he performed Op. 3 in public; but one would never guess so from the performance, which is a model of style, the players carefully differentiating the young Beethoven’s more forceful trio from the graceful Mozart E flat Divertimento, K563, on which he based it.

Speaking of Mozart, Busch’s interpretations of that composer were not universally admired, being thought too masculine or too German by some. Well, the recorded evidence favours Busch: his Serenata Notturna is delightfully Viennese; his A major Concerto is very stylish; and his E flat Quartet, K428, is matched only by the Smetana Quartet’s recordings. Then there is this lovely little Trio, K564, which ended the first half of the New Friends Concert (the Schubert B flat in the second half was not broadcast). The paradigms for K564 are the first Beaux Arts recording and the joyous performance by Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich. Yet here we have one of the great Mozart pianists, Rudolf Serkin, in his element; and the contributions of the Busch brothers, while full of personality, are thoroughly gemutlich.

The two Beethoven quartets were taped during a concert at the palace in Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, during the Busch Quartet’s only post-war tour of Germany. After a hiatus caused by the loss of Andreasson and Doktor and the death of his first wife, Busch reformed the ensemble in New York in 1946. Again his choice fell on a Viennese musician to fill the viola chair: Hugo Gottesmann had led a distinguished quartet (in which Herman Busch had played for a year) in Vienna in the 1920s before becoming a conductor; and he agreed to take up the viola. For one season Ernest Drucker, an Eldering pupil, was second violinist and when he resigned for family reasons, Busch turned to his Swiss pupil Bruno Straumann, who had previously studied with Carl Flesch.

This post-war Busch Quartet was even more democratic than its earlier counterparts. The leader had mellowed and was no longer the man who had acquired the reputation of being tougher than Toscanini in rehearsal. Nevertheless anyone who knows the group’s commercial recordings of Opp. 59/3 and 130 will find few surprises here. The C major Rasumovsky has the same vigorous first movement ã give or take a few notes snatched at in the heat of performance ã the same swinging second movement with inimitable pizzicati, the same expectant third movement and the same exciting, rhythmically incisive fugue. The B flat has the same imaginative characterisation of the first four movements; then comes the timelessly slow Cavatina, sung on the longest of breaths, with the first violin hovering in the central section almost like an out-of-body experience (Beethoven’s marking here is beklemmt or choked up). Finally, the oft-maligned substitute Allegro is sprung on the most buoyant of rhythms but given space in which to acquire some weight (too many ensembles play it too fast and trivialise it).

The main gain, of course, is to hear the quartets played straight through, whereas the studio recordings had to be broken up into five-minute 78rpm takes. Both the Ludwigsburg performances display Busch trademarks. He liked fast movements to be very fast, slow movements very slow; and he played short staccato notes very short, with a distinctive bowed staccato. Then there is the Busch portamento, considered old-fashioned by some and a lost art by others. Listen to the way he and his colleagues use this device structurally, to knit the opening phrases of Op. 130 together, and ask yourself: did the players of Beethoven’s day really not do the same?

Tully Potter ©1998