The Busch Quartet Play Beethoven, Vol. 1

Busch String Quartet

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The Busch Quartet Play Beethoven, Vol. 1 Review

by James Leonard

No matter how much you love these performances of three of Beethoven's string quartets -- and some old timers love them just this side of idolatry -- you have to admit that the Busch Quartet's playing can at times be surprisingly, even startlingly, awful. The intonation sometimes seems only approximate, the ensemble often appears ad hoc, and the tone is definitely roughly hewn. But there are three reasons why so many listeners love these performances: the intensity, the expressivity, and, above all, the profound spirituality. Recorded in 1932 and 1933, the Busch Quartet's approach to Beethoven was conservative for its time, harkening back to the group's founding in Vienna in 1912, and the extravagant use of portamento and tempo rubato plus the reliance on "inspiration of the moment" phrasing may seem excessively romantic for postwar sensibilities. Those who can hear through the Busch's style to the substance, however, will find performances as great as the greatest ever recorded. For all the interpretive liberties, the Adagio affetuoso ed appassionato from the Opus 18, No. 1 Quartet is incredibly compelling. For all the ensemble slips, the Allegro con brio from the Opus 95 Quartet is extremely exciting. And for all that the Vivace from the Opus 135 Quartet plays fast and loose with bar lines, the depth of the sonorities in the Lento assai, cantabile e tranquillo is absolutely transporting. Dutton has done a superlative job remastering EMI's Abbey Road originals into clean, close digital sound.

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