Reviews

GHCD 2406/07 – Adolf Busch: The Berlin Recordings 1921-1929

Adolf Busch, (violin), Busch String Quartet, Bruno Seidler-Winkler & Rudolf Serkin (piano)

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Gramophone – July 2014

Busch at his best
Guild and Pristine produce collections that celebrate the artistry of Adolf Busch
When assessing the value of important reissues, the music and its performers are paramount. But in the case of three recent four-disc sets from Archiv’s ‘Archive’ series that Jonathan Freeman-Attwood reviews in the Reissues section (see page 86)1 feel it only fair to mention product manager David Butchart these are surely among the best planned, most attractively produced `historic’ collections of recent years.
My own favourite among the three is the collection devoted to August Wenzinger and his Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, which is valuable above all ‘lt catches all four players at the height of their powers in sound that is rather better than you might expect’ for the innate musicality of the solo playing. As it happens, Wenzinger studied with Paul Grümmer, who at the time (1927) was cellist of the Busch Quartet. Happily, Guild has just reissued the series of acoustically recorded discs that the quartet made in 1922, not long after it was formed, which catches all four players at the height of their powers in sound that, although primitive, is rather better than you might expect.
One work is played complete: an `Op 3 No 5′, long thought to have been composed by Haydn but which is in fact by Roman Hofstetter and includes an Andante cantabile second movement that was for many years billed simply as ‘Haydn’s Serenade’. Here Busch glides atop his colleagues with the most seductive, warmly drawn tone, a master of phrase-shaping, as always. And yet for me the set’s principal draw is in the various solos that Busch recorded at around the Same time with Bruno Seidler-Winkler at the piano, valuable in that we otherwise have nothing of Busch in such sweetmeats as Dvoiik’s Humoreseque (arr Wihelmj), Slavonic Dances Nos 3 and 8 and Romantic Piece No 1 (mistakenly billed as No 4), Porpora’s Aria in E, Gossec’s Gavotte from Rosine, various Brahms Hungarian Dances, a Tartini Adagio, Kreisler’s Tartini Variations and so on. These and numerous other tracks show Busch to have been as capable of charm as he was of profound interpretation. That latter side of his personality is amply illustrated by his electrically recorded Berlin Bach recordings, including the G major Sonata, B4GV1021, with Rudolf Serkin and the whole of the D minor solo Partita with alternative takes for the Sarabanda and Gigue, the former illustrating precisely why Busch was prized as one of the greatest musicians of his generation. Quartets-wise, the Busch’s fame rests largely on the magnificent recordings of the `late’ Beethoven quartets that they made in 1930s and ’40s. One maddening omission was a quartet version of the Grosse Fuge (Op 130’s rightful finale), though Busch’s rigorously prepared recording with his own Chamber Players makes partial amends. Numerous CD labels have offered us subtle transfer variations on the Busch Beethoven legacy – Biddulph, EMMI and Pearl among them – and Pristine Audio’s slightly ‘aired’ Option will appeal to listeners who prefer a modest concert hall acoustic to the clearly focused but rather claustrophobic feel of the shellac originals. In the case of Op 132, just occasionally Hermann Busch’s cello picks up a little too much ambience, but elsewhere the sound is lively and credibly realistic, with next to no surface noise. Op 131, perhaps the finest performance of the set (maybe the work’s greatest recording of all time), is wholly successful sound-wise, with a beautifully judged transition from the (broadly paced) first movement to the second. Op 130 and Op 59 No 1 (the one ‘non-late’ quartet included, though the Busch also recorded Op 18 No 1, Op59 No 2 and Op 95) were made in America in the early 1940s and sound virtually as good as tape recordings, Op 130’s Cavatina, like the slow movements of Op 132 and Op 135, serving as uplifting interpretative models for any quartets active now or in the Future. These truly are great recordings of the last century and I would be very surprised if anything that appears this side of the centennial divide were to match them.

MusicWeb International – June 2014

Adolf Busch was born in Siegen, Westphalia in 1891 and had two brothers who were also distinguished musicians: Fritz the famous conductor, and Herman the cellist. He studied the violin with Willy Hess and Bram Elderling at the Cologne Conservatory. He also studied composition under Fritz Steinbach. In 1912 he played the Beethoven Concerto under Max Reger who told Busch’s fiancé Frieda Gruters that Busch was taking the place of Joachim and that he had never heard the concerto played in such a way before. This was great praise indeed.
After the First World War, he founded the Busch Quartet, which continued until 1951, a year before his death at the relatively young age of sixty-one. In the late 1920s Busch became disillusioned and unhappy at the political situation that was emerging in Germany, and moved with his family and Rudolf Serkin, whom he regarded as a son, to Basel, Switzerland in 1927. A man of great integrity and moral conviction he was appalled by the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews when they came to power in 1933. From then on, until after the war, he boycotted performing in Germany, and from 1938 Italy also. As a result of his high principles, his income was thus halved. At the outbreak of the Second World War he emigrated to the United States and settled in Vermont. In the States, together with Serkin, who married Busch’s daughter, he founded the Marlboro School and Festival. Counted amongst his students were Stefi Geyer, Erica Morini and Yehudi Menuhin.
The Swiss label Guild is to be commended for bringing together for the first time, on this two-CD set, the complete recordings Adolf Busch made in Berlin between 1921 and 1929. The first recordings were made for the independent label Deutsche Grammophon Aktiengesellschaft, after it separated from HMV following the First World War. He would probably have begun his recording career earlier if it hadn’t been for world events which coincided with the launch of his professional career. He was twenty-nine at the time and initially contracted to record six items, but their success and popularity lead to a further twelve and eight more with his string quartet. For the piano-accompanied items, the pianist employed was Bruno Seidler-Winkler (1880-1960), none other than the company’s musical director. All the sessions took place in Berlin, where Busch lived at the time.
The earliest discs were acoustically recorded and sonically are constrained by the restrictions that this primitive recording method imposed. Considerable allowances have to be made by the listener. They are also limiting in their failure to convey the full splendour of the violinist’s tone and personality. For these acoustic recordings Busch uses his 1716 Strad, which has a less full-bodied and opulent tone than his 1732 ‘ex-Wiener’ Strad employed in the later electrical recordings. When we come to the electrical recordings from 1928-9 on CD 2, one is immediately struck by the dramatic improvement in sound quality.
There are many good things here. Three Hungarian Dances by Brahms are included. They are exciting performances, delivered with fire and panache. Rubato is subtly applied. The Dvořák Slavonic Dances are similarly vibrant, rhythmical buoyant and exciting. Intonation is always pristine, especially in double-stop passages. A test pressing of Op. 46 No. 8 is included. The Corelli Adagio, in Busch’s own arrangement, is expressive, but it was marred by some pretty ungainly finger slides. Several Kreisler pieces are included, with an exceptionally compelling account of the ‘Tartini’ Variations on a Theme of Corelli and some pretty impressive bowing. The Quartet items I was less impressed with. Apart from the Hofstetter, they are one movement extracts only, as was the norm at the time. They are less successful than the solo items. The acoustic process renders the sound somewhat congested.
The Bach items on CD 2, recorded electrically, were made by Electrola, which was established in 1926 as HMV’s German arm, replacing DG. By the time these recordings were made in 1928-9, the process had come on by leaps and bounds. The difference in sound quality is striking and much easier on the ear. We are fortunate to have a complete Partita in D minor, BWV 1004 from 1929. Despite Henri Marteau’s complete E major Partita set down acoustically in 1912, Busch’s was the first complete Bach work recorded by the electrical process. His achievement came exactly one day before his illustrious pupil Yehudi Menuhin recorded the C major Sonata in London. Busch’s is an authoritative performance, marked by nobility and spirituality. He has a fundamental intellectual grasp of the whole work, especially the mighty Chaconne which ends the work. Good intonation, flexible tempo relations and an underlying rhythmical pulse, mark this performance with distinction. The wonderful Sonata in G major, arranged by Busch and Blume, is accompanied by Rudolf Serkin.
Violin buffs will be overjoyed with this release, and the opportunity to hear some captivating playing by a true master. The booklet notes, which are in English only, are written by Tully Potter, Busch’s biographer, and provide a detailed and comprehensive account of the circumstances surrounding these recording treasures.
Stephen Greenbank

Audiophile Audition – March 2014

For the first time, the Adolf Busch legacy from Weimar Germany is assembled for our delectation of the foremost violinist and chamber musician in Europe at that time.
Many consider violinist and chamber musician Adolf Busch (1891-1952) to rank supreme among German musicians, not only for the purity of his devotion to his art but for his determined political morality which refused to compromise his soul for the sake of Nazi approval. As early as 1933, the Busch Quartet ceased giving German concerts; and in 1937, when openly invited to return to Germany – an offer that included a tolerance for accompanist Rudolf Serkin, a Jew – Busch replied that “If you hang Hitler in the middle, with Goering on the left and Goebbels on the right, I’ll return to Germany.” Few artists, anyone for that matter, could claim the force of his convictions as the North Star of his life. Rudolf Serkin felt that Busch never truly recovered from the moral failure of his nation to stop the horror. Barely squeezing out a living in America as a teacher, advisor, and occasional soloist, Adolf Busch died without ever regaining his former glory or the respect that his colossal integrity warranted.
Guild collects all of the 1921-1922 sessions Busch recorded for Deutsche Grammophon Aktiengesellschaft company, accompanied by its director Bruno Seidler-Winkler. The metal masters of these discs the Nazis deliberately destroyed because of Busch’s willful resistance to their cause. The opening Brahms Hungarian Dances attest to the firepower Busch possessed. The famous G Minor (in the Joachim arrangement) definitely casts an old-world spirit among us, rife with mannerisms that have become high art. With the Corelli Adagio, we suddenly find ourselves assaulted by a masterly serenity of spirit. So, too, the Corti arrangement of the Tartini Adagio bespeaks a genuine “operatic” vocal line in Busch, in which the trills round off polished phrases. In spite of a “dry” acoustic – and a 1716 Stradivarius less sonorous than his later 1732 instrument – the singular tone and flexible line of the artist shine through.
A Nineteenth Century aesthetic infiltrates Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 3, but its gypsy impulses send us sparks. Guild offers two takes of the 1922 aggressive furiant, the G Minor Slavonic Dance, one a test pressing that differs from the official version by one second! The detached chords, piercing flute tone, and fiery pizzicati attest to passionately-tempered artist gifted with a stunning technical arsenal. The first (mislabeled “4” on the Guild credits) of the Op. 75 Romantic Pieces, the Larghetto, communicates in etched phrases a sweet nostalgia for a Paradise Lost. The dainty, naïve Humoresque in G-flat concludes the Dvorak group, a plain-spoken but loving rendition from the Wilhelmj arrangement.
The realization, suspected at first but admitted in 1935, that the so-called “discoveries” of Fritz Kreisler in fact were his own compositions eventually led Busch to discard others’ arrangements of classics in favor of his own. But Busch pays homage to Kreisler, first in his 1922 rendition of the staid Scherzo of Dittersdorf. The vivacious “Tartini” Variations exert a fulsome confidence in the series of breathless virtuoso effects they demand. The largest of the Kreisler pieces, the Pugnani Praeludium and Allegro, conveys from the outset a lofty poise and forward motion informed by a sweetly evolving melodic line. The Allegro, constantly moving in sweeping gestures and double notes, testifies to a stamina that never relinquishes its hold on the intrinsic pulsation of motion.
The Bach solo works recorded in 1922 initiated on records a tradition that would find acolytes in Yehudi Menuhin and Ruggiero Ricci. The famous Preludio in E projects an astonishing verve and pitched accuracy. Recorded on asbestos? Remastering by Peter Reynolds, by the way, certainly exceeds my expectations for acoustic shellacs. The pliant Gavotte en Rondeau actually precedes this Preludio, having been inscribed in 1921. These discs appeared as six 10” and six 12” single-sided 78 rpm discs, part of the purple Schallplatte Grammophon label.
The Busch Quartet – with violins Busch and Goesta Andresson; viola Paul Doktor; and cello Paul Gruemmer – provides us four works inscribed as their premier efforts in 1922. The Hofstetter Quartet in F, once attributed to Haydn, exerts a gay energy, a healthy ensemble, spirited and accurate. The ubiquitous Andante cantabile – recall what use Ernie Kovacs could make of it – emits a winning charm in every note, plucked, bowed, or strummed. Mozart has representation from his K. 575 Quartet in D Major, with two movements of alternately haunting beauty, the Andante, followed by the sprightly Menuetto. We can hear, even in ensemble, the Busch portamentos and “swooping” gestures that marked his style without undue distortion of the composer’s intentions. The addition of the Verdi E Minor Quartet came late to the ensemble, so it is rare and fortunate we have one recorded movement, the rollicking Prestissimo that features some lovely sounds in the Trio from Paul Doktor and Paul Gruemmer. The last of the series, the Scherzo from Schubert’s mighty G Major Quartet, anticipates the full recording of the work the Busch player made later. A dreamy plastic energy surges forth, much in the Mendelssohn tradition, but touched more by a sense of tragedy.
The collection concludes with a series of Bach inscriptions Busch made for His Master’s Voice (Electrola) beginning in 1928, already several years after the association had been proposed. The extant Bach Sarabande – the first of two test pressings – has lain dormant for decades; and it is lucky to exist at all, since its inadvertent bow error would have caused Busch to reject it. Of particularly striking presence, the Sarabanda from the D Minor Partita (23 April 1928) conveys a deep thoughtful resonance. Busch captured the fluid Giga in one take, 11 June 1929. Busch and Rudolf Serkin gave the modern premier of the Bach G Major Sonata, BWV 1021 (arranged by Busch and Blume) on 22 October 1929, recording the work at the Singakademie, Berlin two days later. Originally, for the recording credits, Serkin wanted his name suppressed, lest he be label “accompanist” indefinitely. Today, the Busch-Serkin duo reigns among the great chamber music ensembles. The reverberant sound, though chaste in conception, far outshines its early date among electrical recordings. The Vivace seems to adumbrate Stravinsky in its metric shifts. The heart of the small gem, the Largo, occupies a special moment in time that leads directly into the joyful Presto, which quite sweeps us along in spontaneous collaboration.
The esteemed solo recording of the Bach D Minor Partita (8, 11 November 1929) in its entirety at the Beethovensaal, Berlin was only the second such enterprise, Henri Marteau’s having inscribed the E Major Partita as early as 1912. The Busch effort remains the first electrical recording of a solo Bach violin work, but the second occurred one day later, when a youthful Yehudi Menuhin recorded the C Major Sonata in London. A passionate chastity of means defines the Busch performance, but nothing anemic in this rendition exists. While some may find Busch overly “careful,” he means to preserve the accuracy and clarity of Bach’s lines, which he renders with a touching sympathy. I would not call his Corrente “tentative,” simply “direct.” The ensuing two movements had their “test pressings” only several months earlier, so a cleanly virile pair of movements follows, the Sarabanda and Giga. We come at last to the mighty Chaconne, which Menuhin called “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists.” Busch intends to highlight the vast harmonic motion of the piece, its singular affect spread out in three-part form as an unbroken series of variants. Busch himself adapts his own rhythmic pulse at several places, and his glissandi and scooping figures remain within an older archaic tradition in Bach. But none shall deny the emotional-intellectual impetus of the Busch version, whose incremental exaltation exerts a mystical power that arises from absolute musical conviction.
Gary Lemco