BEETHOVEN Late String Quartets – Busch Quartet
Up to a point the length of a review should denote importance—and were this the case, this notice ought to occupy many pages! This is an indispensable set—as revealing of the Beethoven quartets as Schnabel is of the sonatas, and if it were ever correct to speak of any performances as definitive, this is an instance when one might be tempted to do so. The Busch's Beethoven set standards by which successive generations of quartets were judged—and invariably found wanting! Their insight and wisdom, their humanity and total absorption in Beethoven's art has to my mind never been surpassed and only sporadically matched, even by such modern ensembles as the Vegh and the Lindsay! Needless to say, this will not be news to collectors who invested in the two World Records sets (SHB27, 1/75; SHB38 11/76—both nla) which contained all the late quartets (save for Op. 130, which the Busch recorded in 1941 for American Columbia). Advances in cutting and pressing techniques have enabled EMI to accommodate Op. 18 No. 1 on the same number of sides. Though they may have appeared elsewhere, I do not recall earlier transfers of the sonatas in the UK catalogue.
These performances are so superb that despite their sonic limitations I still think it possible to recommend them to younger non-specialist collectors, even in these days of the Compact Disc. Indeed, I was delighted to hear RO making the Busch his first recommendation, when comparing the available versions of Op. 132 for BBC Radio 3's Record Review. Of course, there are the occasional portamentos that were in general currency in the 1930s but are unfashionable now, but I can't say that I find them irksome. The transfers have been made by Keith Hardwick and Tony Griffiths (in Opp. 127, 131 and 135—and not credited in the booklet) and are in all the cases I have sampled altogether magnificent: I tried the first movement of Op. 127 in the new set alongside the earlier transfer of A. C. Griffiths. In the new set it is the last item on the side, while in the earlier it is the opening, but even so, the newcomer has a greater range, particularly at the bottom. Incidentally, when I used to play the old 78rpm set of Op. 18 No. 1, I always pedantically repeated the first side which coincided with the exposition. Keith Hardwick quite rightly does not but the side-join is discernible for there is a marginal gain in level on the old Side 2. (There is a slight blemish during the return of the D minor theme in the slow movement which I vaguely recall being on the 78rpm copy, to which I had access in my youth.) There is a slight pitch discrepancy between the first and second movements of Op. 24. But enough of pressings and transfers, what playing! This goes, too, for the three sonatas from Busch and Serkin which I had not heard before. The violin is placed rather forward, though no more so than on the Kreisler set made only four years later, where the piano has slightly more body (HMV mono COLH7, 11/57—nla): Serkin's sounds a little frail, though there is nothing frail about the playing! Kreisler has an incomparable tone but Busch the more classical spirit. All three sonatas make a wonderful bonus. Whatever set you may already have, be it the Hollywood, the Lindsay, the Alban Berg or the Quartetto Italiano, you will not regret adding this to your collection. It is very competitively priced, too!'