Beethoven Middle Quartets Budapest Bridge 9099AC

Déjà Review: this review was first published in October 2002 and the recording is still available.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The Middle Quartets
String Quartets, Op 59 Nos 1-3
String Quartet, Op 74
String Quartet, Op 95
Budapest String Quartet
rec. 1940-60, Coolidge Auditorium, The Library of Congress, Washington DC
Great Performances from the Library of Congress, Vol 11
Bridge Records 9099AC [3 CDs: 156]

Admirers of the Budapest String Quartet have recently had cause to celebrate their good fortune. A profusion of recordings, archive and re-releases, have restored or added to a discography already well documented. Bridge have released two three CD sets devoted to recitals given by the Quartet at the Library of Congress during their residence there, which ran from 1940-62. Remastering has been judiciously applied, albeit the rather boxy acoustic of the Coolidge Auditorium must have proved initially somewhat unsympathetic.

It’s difficult to underestimate the ascent of the Budapest Quartet in American musical life or their perceived supremacy over many years. From 1930 until 1962 they performed approaching sixty cycles of the Beethoven Quartets and made three studio recordings of them – one on 78, one on mono in 1952 and one on stereo LPs in 1959. For The Library of Congress they performed the cycle four times, from which come the recordings enshrined in these discs. The bulk come from the early to mid 1940s – though one of their most searching interpretations, Op 59 No 2, is heard here in a performance from April 1960, a year or so after they made their last commercial recording of the cycle. With so few sound problems – a small patch due to a damaged master is noted in the Presto of Op 74 – we can concentrate more fully on the extra quality of energy and immediacy generated by these live performances and admire the many qualities that made the Budapest so eventful a foursome – their sense of momentum, instrumental finesse, cohesive tonal palette which tended to the rarefied, a certain objective, rather analytical approach, though not one devoid of depth or powerful and lyrical currents of feeling. The level of musicianship is exceptionally high here, intonation excellent, and ensemble secure.

The traversal of Op 59 No 1 is of real stature, confident and lively playing by Joseph Roismann, the leader, with an ebullient Allegretto and powerful intensity and consonant sense of arching line in the Adagio. The second CD features the only performance here with Edgar Ortenberg as second violin. He replaced Alexander Schneider when the latter resigned to join other chamber groups. Ortenberg was a fine player with a notable recording of Hindemith’s Third Violin Sonata to his credit but is generally held to be a “cooler” player than the more extrovert Schneider. This performance was recorded over two days, 6th and 7th March 1946 the sleeve note writer, Harris Goldsmith, avers that this is a “bolder and less silken” reading than the quartet’s other recordings – but to my ears though I admire the narrative grip of the first movement, the questing nobility of the Andante and the strongly declamatory tone they can impart I still found parts of the Minuetto intolerably manicured and glib. Op 59 No 2 however – in striking and immediate 1960 sound – was a Budapest speciality and first recorded by them in 1935, at a time when Istvan Ipolyi, the sole surviving Hungarian member, was still with them. The recording preserved here is from the last of the four Library of Congress Beethoven cycles and convincingly demonstrates their consistently inspired way with this music. The passionate and engaged performance is very slightly tighter and tauter than the commercial recording of a year earlier but with little loss of lyrical momentum. The Adagio from that 1959 cycle is one of the most moving that I know and whilst this live performance doesn’t quite match it, the Budapest have an extraordinary powerful way with it.

Op 74 is a forceful and not at all avuncular affair with its primus inter pares role for Roismann – who acquits himself with distinction in an interpretation about which I am at best ambivalent. It seems unyielding to me. Harris Goldsmith is an excellent guide through the various recorded cycles, comparing and contrasting performance practice and subtleties of interpretation. He is perhaps – understandably – overgenerous to the quartet with regard to the 1940 Op 95 – in their subsequent December 1941 reading they were somewhat broader and less discursive, less prone to impose manifold abrasions and disjunctions on the line – but this was never one of their most winning interpretations.

In addition to the performances, CD 1 boasts a six minute spiced interview with Alexander Schneider from the late 1980s – charismatic as ever. Altogether this is an invaluable addition to the important discography of the Budapest Quartet in excellent sound, splendid documentation and full of concentrated wisdom.

Jonathan Woolf

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