The half-a-century-long story of the Budapest Quartet -- the tale of how an all-Hungarian ensemble became an all-Russian ensemble while moving from Budapest to Berlin to Paris to London and finally to the U.S. -- is too interesting and too complicated to bear retelling in so small a space. Suffice it to say, the 1933 and 1934 Beethoven recordings on this disc capture the group during its transition from an all-Hungarian to an all-Russian ensemble. In 1931, Russian second violinist Joseph Roisman had finally driven out the group's original Hungarian first violinist and leader and usurped his place. Russian violinist Alexander Schneider, brother of cellist Mischa Schneider, was hired to take Roisman's chair, leaving only Hungarian violist Istvàn Ipolyi from the original group -- and, by 1936, he, too, had been replaced by a Russian.
The three-quarters Russian Budapest Quartet's approach to Beethoven is lean, clean, and sometimes a bit mean. This works well in its dark-hued and hard-driven E minor Quartet, Op. 59/2, with its glowering central Molto adagio and fearsome closing Presto. It works less well in the perhaps too insistent B flat major Quartet, Op. 130, with its too fast and slightly reckless Presto and too slow and faintly sentimental Cavatina. For those who know only the all-Russian Budapest's later Beethoven recordings, this disc will reveal a tighter, tougher quartet with points to make and something to prove. Biddulph's remastering of EMI's 70-year-old Abbey Road originals is admirably clear, amazingly quiet, and wonderfully honest.