Amazingly, this 1941 Columbia recording of Beethoven's String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59/2, by the Busch Quartet has never been commercially released -- not just not released on CD or even not released on LP, but not released, period. The Busch Quartet, reconstituted in America after having fled fascist Europe, had been scheduled to record the work for Columbia in 1940, but leader Adolf Busch's on-stage heart attack set them back a year. Then, just as the recording was ready for release, RCA put out its own recording of the work by the Coolidge Quartet, and with shellac for records limited due to the war effort, the Busch's recording was shelved, as it turned out, nearly permanently, until this 2004 release.
It is a marvelous record performance, surely one of the best the work has ever received. Why? It's not because of technical virtuosity -- listeners accustomed to the highly polished performances of later quartets may blanche at the players' occasional gaffes in intonation and technique. It's because of ensemble and depth and humanity. The Busch Quartet, with Adolf's brother Hermann on cello plus Gösta Andreasson on second violin and Karl Doktor on viola, had been playing together for a quarter century and in that time developed an ensemble of unprecedented liberty, cogency, and equality. The Busch Quartet, with an incisive attack plus impeccable intonation and sonorities built from the bottom up, had a sound of unexcelled breadth, weight, and depth. And, most significantly, the Busch Quartet, with more soul than Motown, more spirit than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and more heart than Billie Holiday, had an interpretation of unsurpassable humanity. The linear force of the opening Allegro, the rapt intensity of the Molto adagio, the easeful release of the Allegretto, and, best of all, the relentless drive of the concluding Presto combine the heart, the mind, the soul, and the spirit to give life to Beethoven's music. The only slightly less magnificent 1942 recording of Beethoven's String Quartet F major, Op. 59/1, has almost always been in print in one form or another since it was first released and is well known to longtime chamber music fans. But the premiere release of the E minor recording should be heard by anyone who loves great art. Biddulph's transfer of Columbia's 78s is a bit rough, but clear enough and totally honest.