Beethoven Late Quartets
Returning to these wonderful recordings for the umpteenth time confirms such perennial qualities as crystal-clear articulation, a keen sense of architectural proportion, an impeccable feeling for rhythm and great intensity of expression. Sliding between notes is less of a stumbling-block today than it was, say, 30 years ago (when portamento was deemed arch or sentimental) and the Busch’s spiritual engagement with the music remains a constant source of inspiration. One has only to listen to Op. 127’s Adagio or Scherzo, Op. 130’s Cavatina and the central Lento of Op. 135 to realize that the Busch Quartet’s readings are as potent now as they were some 65 years ago when the sessions were originally recorded.
No question, then, that these recordings fall securely within the ‘must have’ category. The trouble is that no one has as yet released the perfect Busch-Beethoven package, although – in terms of planning – this Pearl set is one of the finest available. Best of all would have been a box containing all the Beethoven quartet repertory that the Busch recorded (i.e. Opp. 18 No. 1, 51 Nos. 1 and 2 plus everything included here). However, as Op. 51 No. 2 is a Sony production and was first released only many years after it was originally recorded (it still isn’t available on CD, at least not in Europe or America), one presumes that it is still in copyright. So, unless Sony itself decides to push the boat out and issue everything, Op. 51 No. 2 would have to be loaned to another company. In any case, it seems perfectly logical to gather together all the ‘late’ quartets, the one segment of Beethoven’s mighty cycle that the Busch Quartet recorded complete and the repertory that is nowadays most closely associated with its name.
Here, Op.130 is on a different CD to its rightful finale, the Grosse Fuge. Granted, the Fuge is played by the Busch Chamber Players and not by the Quartet (Adolf Busch saw the work as performable in its own right), but as the two readings are so clearly of a single mind, it would surely have been preferable to provide the option of programming them together.
Transfer-wise, things go fairly well. There is minimal surface noise, a pleasant bloom to the sound (aided by the odd spot of ‘reverb’) and impressive presence (especially in Op. 95). My only real criticisms concern some imperfectly timed side-joins and an overall tendency to have individual movements follow each other rather too rapidly. The most conspicuous joins are at 3'58'' into the first movement of Op. 131 (too much of a gap), 0'51'' and 4'46'' into the third movement (both are too short) and, in the Grosse Fuge, at 8'12'' (again, too much of a gap) and 12'37'' (too short).
The competition includes crystal-clear EMI/Andrew Walter transfers of Quartets Nos. 1, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15 and 16, plus other works (though not including the Sony recordings of Quartet No. 13 and the Grosse Fuge) and an excellent Preiser two-CD set of Nos. 9, 11, 14 and 15. Both sets parade a more truthful sonority than Pearl’s subtle enhancements, though if the present programme appeals and a few questionable side-joins don’t worry you, then rest assured you are in for a real treat.'