Pristine Newsletter - 9 May 2014   
Beethoven Quartets
Newsletter Archive
New review
April 2014
by Gary Lemco  

Dohn�nyi, Beethoven, Haydn & Schumann 
Recording editor and producer Mark Obert-Thorn resurrects two of the rare Remington inscriptions, from Don Gabor's 1951 LP devoted to Hungarian composer-pianist Erno von Dohnanyi (1877-1960), once described as "the last surviving representative of the romantic age of Brahms, Schumann and Wagner." The major contribution to this important restoration - along with the HMV Variations -  the Remington discs (RLP 199-16; RLP-199-43), offer Dohnanyi (in the latter LP) at the keyboard and announcing, in English, each of the thirteen movements comprising Schumann's Scenes from Childhood, Op. 15.  In spite of Remington's notoriously noisy vinyl surfaces and distant microphone placement, Obert-Thorn manages to distill a clear, even warm resonance in Donhanyi's affectionate performance. The producer does admit that the episode, "Important event," suffered such damage that an earlier pressing resides here. At the composer's advanced age, his playing does not always exert digital control and accuracy, but the intensity of expression never lacks for authenticity.

One could claim that Haydn's own pedigree contains Hungarian elements, so Dohnanyi's rendition of the 1783 Andante and Variations in F Minor, a remarkable double-theme and variations whose F Major coda alone runs for 83 measures, has the requisite color elements. Dohnanyi maintains an energetic pulsation in this work - not always easy with its labyrinth of moving trills and flowing triplets - and those variations in major become quite bold and extroverted. At the last bars in which the theme disintegrates, Dohnanyi's pedal control projects a sense of mystery.

Commentators have termed Beethoven's Andante favori in F as "too luxurious" for the original intention of the piece, to serve as the middle movement for the Waldstein Sonata. Donhanyi realizes its expansive loveliness, often concentrating on the powerful bass harmonies that support the fluid treble voice. Late in the exposition of this rondo form, Dohnanyi's playing becomes dramatically insistent, then tapers off emotionally for an instant, only to resume an unusually aggressive demeanor, in spite of the music's basic self-possession. The last page proffers a spirit of reconciliation with that has preceded. The D Minor Sonata in Dohnanyi's performance maintains its exploratory character, a kind of experiment in opposing impulses of  dominant arpeggios, largo, against sighing figures in appoggiatura, marked allegro. The explosive quality of Dohnanyi's first movement belies his age, a sometimes meteoric vision in dramatic dialogue. The B-flat Major Adagio contrasts a placid sentiment in double-dotted motifs in high register against drum rolls in the bass. While the music hints at the minor keys, it never settles into any but major modes, despite the gruffly ominous portents that pass through Dohnanyi's often delicate phrasing.  The perpetuum mobile of the last movement challenges Dohnanyi's fingers, certainly, but the warmth of expression more than compensates for digital slips. The sudden surges of motion and the tendresse of the quiet passages remind us of what a master tonal colorist Dohnanyi remained, both as composer and performer.

The 1914 Variations on a Nursery Tune bears the subtext, "For the enjoyment of humorous people and annoyance of others." It begins with a Wagnerian panoply of dark colors in brass and tympani, only to relent and announce Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman that Mozart employed.  The composer and Sir Adrian Boult (rec. 10-11 September 1956) collaborate in sparkling fashion throughout the one-finger-style tune and its twelve variants, and we can well savor the big moments, as when the piece quotes the Brahms B-flat Concerto in Variation 3. Dohnanyi imitates a music box with bells and harp at Variation 5. The sixth variant for piano and winds proves a colossal etude in orchestral technique. A bloated waltz, a march, and scherzo ensue, each an eclectic blend of Vienna and Hungarian humor. The last three variants pay homage to the composer's polyphonic mastery, moving through a passacaglia, a chorale, and a final fugato that plays off the colors - among many - of the keyboard against the strings and contrabassoon.  There have been more virtuosic renditions of this flavored work, but this possesses an elegance unique to its musical context. 

Juilliard Quartet: Schoenberg and Webern    

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String Quartets 1-4

Five Movements
for String Quartet

 PACM 087 [2hr 23:34]

These are the Juilliard's first recordings of the four canonical Schoenberg quartets, recorded in 1951 and 1952. The performances are just as stunning today as they were at first blush. The young Juilliard ensemble (Robert Mann, Robert Koff, Raphael Hillyer, and Arthur Winograd) specialized in then contemporary music, and its debut recordings, the first complete cycle of Bart�k quartets, had dazzled the phonographic world in 1949 and 1950. This Schoenberg cycle had been preceded by one on a set of private 78s by the Kolisch Quartet, a devoted but far less competent group of the composer's friends and relatives, who recorded the Fourth Quartet a few hours before its first public performance. These Juilliard performances are models of clarity and balance, things lacking in most performances of any Schoenberg work in those days. Of the cycles recorded since 1952, only that by the Arditti Quartet challenges the Juilliard for brilliance and panache (against consensus opinion, I have never been a fan of the LaSalle recordings, which strike me as being overly slick). The Juilliard's stereo remakes (c. 1977, with three replacements joining Mann) could not recapture the excitement of its early days-which CBS all but endorsed by keeping the monos available for some years thereafter.

Andrew Rose's remasterings brim with life; the four instruments leap into the living room, strong individuals and yet a well-balanced ensemble. It's difficult to believe that these are the Juilliard's monaural recordings, not the stereo. One of Rose's secrets lies in his sources; he used 1961 English Philips LPs, which no doubt were superior pressings to the original Columbia LPs. The rest remain trade secrets; whatever he does, the results are marvelous. A recently issued (Fanfare 35: 5) West Hill Radio set of six CDs includes all the Juilliard's mono recordings of Bart�k, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. All were very well transferred; I thought at the time that they got everything possible from Columbia set SL-188, but post-Rose they show a distinct lack of presence-what else could one have expected from early mono LPs?

Need I add that the Webern is an equally exciting performance and that Pristine's sound quality continues to be superb? Rose writes in his program notes that there was no room on the two CDs for Berg's op. 3 Quartet, which he also restored and is available as a free download at It's too bad that neither the Pristine nor the West Hill Radio set includes Schoenberg's 1897 Quartet in D Major, which the Juilliard recorded with its stereo set and does not seem to have been issued on CD. But let us count our blessings!

James North, Fanfare  

OFFER ENDS 16 MAY 2014  


New This Week:

Janos Starker

Kol Nidrei, op. 47  
London Symphony Orchestra

Ant�l Dor�ti, conductor

1962 stereo Mercury recording


CatNum: SR-90303
Date: 1962-07-10
Venue: London, Watford Town Hall
Label: Mercury
Performer: London Symphony Orchestra
Composer: BRUCH
Title: Kol Nidrei, op. 47
LpNum: Mercury SR-90303, Mercury SRI-75045
CdNum: Mercury 432 001-2
Performer: Janos Starker, cello
Conductor: Dorati, Antal
Transfer by Dr John Duffy

This Week     Busch Quartet play late Beethoven
Sound            What should a piano sound like?     
PSXclusive    Starker & Dorati stereo 1962 Bruch
Offer               Save 25% on the Juilliards' Schoenberg  

This week's new release

This week's we turn our attention to the world of chamber music and one of the classic sets of the recorded canon, the Busch Quartet's recordings of Beethoven's "Late" string quartets.

The recordings date from the 1930s and early 1940s; the quartet recorded a number of works for HMV in the '30s, amongst them the Beethoven quartets numbered 12, 14, 15 and 16. But this was at a time when the record companies were concentrating on repertoire more than performance, to the extent that if another quartet had already made a recording of the Beethoven's 13th in B flat, what (so the thinking went) was the point of having the Busch Quartet "duplicate" it?

It's a thinking that still pervaded the review columns of the 1950s - why did we need more than one recording of such-and-such a work when [insert unrecorded masterpiece here] was still lacking any disc?

Happily for the listener today, though under perhaps far less happy circumstances for the musicians, the Busch Quartet relocated to the United States in June 1940, and soon commenced recording there with Columbia. The following year that elusive 13th Quartet was set down in recording sessions at New York's Liederkranz Hall, and more was to follow - though not the Grosse Fuge, nor a completion of the Beethoven quartet cycle.

The Grosse Fuge was a part of the Busch Quartet's concert repertoire, and look carefully and you'll see a Busch recording of it appear on some collections. But it's not the quartet playing it - Busch instead decided to play it with his American chamber orchestra, and this, as his only recording of the work, is what you'll hear there.

When I was compiling the late quartets for the present release I soon realised there would be a gap for the CD-buying aficionado. A "work-sized" gap, to be precise, with 5 quartets, each running to a little less than half a CD in duration. What to do?

The decision kind of fell into my lap. Among my collection I also had a copy of the 1942 US Columbia recording of the first Rasumovsky Quartet - No. 7 - which runs to just under 41 minutes. With the 12th running to a little over 38 minutes, the two combined fit perfectly onto an 80 minute CD. Keeping things in chronological order (according to composition) the first Rasumovsky launches us into mid-period Beethoven as a warm up to the delights of the late quartets to follow. I hope you like the coupling - and I look forward to tackling the other two Rasumovsky's in due course.

The earliest of these recordings was made in Abbey Road's Studio 3 in 1933, the latest (that Rasumovsky) 9 years later in New York. Despite quieter sides on the Columbia discs, I've managed to get very creditable, clear and largely clean sound from all the discs.

As with the Schnabel Beethoven Piano Sonatas, I've taken a somewhat unconventional approach in preparing these transfer: looking not to original 78rpm discs, but to later, vinyl releases for my source material. Made before the days of digital declickers and denoisers to help out, these transfers relied solely on the cleanness of the originals and the skills of the transfer engineers to get the best sound they could.

One practise used by the likes of EMI was to take their metal masters, designed for pressing noisy British shellac discs, and instead make one-off quiet vinyl pressings of the same discs - something I can't hope to achieve myself. These could then provide very quiet transfers of their 78s to tape, ready for careful editing and reassembly and, ultimately, vinyl issue. Thus near-mint German vinyl was the source here for the HMV recordings.

Columbia used much quieter 78rpm surfaces for many of their pressings, but it's not clear how they reproduced their 78s for vinyl issue in the 1970s. A second option might have been directly playing metal masters, possibly using a special stylus designed to play the peaks rather than grooves of the "negatives". Or they may have used mint shellac.

What is clear is that the recordings ended up on tape - and by the time the tapes arrived on LP some tape head azimuth error had crept in, because summing the two channels initially resulted in phase cancellation of upper frequencies. The digital correction of this azimuth error, and come judicious re-equalisation of the recordings revealed far more in the way of upper frequencies than the rather muffled LP issues ever suggested. This I've managed to bring out - they really are full frequency recordings - right up to 18 or 19kHz, made at a time when this wasn't theoretically available.

As a result the sound quality here is at times quite incredible - I'm listening to the 13th Quartet as I type these words and it's almost impossible to believe this was recorded 73 years ago!

XR remastering, coupled with a very slight rounding out of the dry acoustic with that of the small hall at Santa Cecilia in Rome, has made a massive impact on these classic recordings. They're really not to be missed. Take a listen to our sample, from the 13th Quartet, and tell me you don't get the same thrill when you hear it as I'm getting right now! 

What does a piano sound like?

Lost in thought yesterday
whilst mowing the lawn, I asked myself this precise question: "what does a piano sound like?". Or perhaps "what should a piano sound like?"

It's a pertinent question, and the answer isn't as simple as you might think. Right now I'm preparing some 1950s Russian piano recordings for issue next week, and I was feeling really pleased with myself, having just made a tiny, tiny adjustment to the timbre of the lower range of the piano in the recording. But was it accurate?

The recordings were made over a period of probably several years. They may indeed have taken place in a number of locations, and using a number of different instruments. The microphones may have changed. Their position almost certainly did.

So what does a piano sound like? Does it sound like a piano when you put your head right next to the strings, or when you're standing a metre or two away from it, or when you're at the back of a packed concert hall? And if the answer to that last question is "yes" to all, how come the piano sounds different at each location, yet still sounds like a piano? And what should it sound like when exiting your hi-fi loudspeakers?

Of course there are a few basics we can now tackle on troublesome recordings. A piano shouldn't exhibit vibrato, that's for sure. Its pitch should neither shimmer nor waver slowly up and down 33.3 times a minute. It should be rock solid.

But what of the instrument? An indifferently recorded Soviet-era piano - what might have been used? Would it have had the strident character of a Steinway concert grand, or perhaps the seductive rich tones of a B�send�rfer Imperial? Can you tell from the recording? Should you adjust the recording such that it implies a type or model of instrument, if that's even possible?

These kind of questions tend to be less of an issue with dealing with large ensembles, where the mass of strings, for example, cancels out the individuality of any specific instrument and absorbs it into the whole. Would a string section comprising solely of Stradivarius instruments sound considerably different to one using modern instruments played by the same musicians?

I returned to the task in hand, trying to cut the grass and avoid the flower beds. There probably isn't a definitive answer, which is why the question circulated round and round in my head. The original sound of the Soviet recordings had lacked something, leaving the piano sounding just a little flat and lifeless. I felt I'd found that lifeblood and gently reintroduced it during the remastering. It now sounds more like a piano than it did (though it always did).

On a scale of sounding not-pianoey to sounding very-pianoey, I've probably shifted it slightly in the right direction. Perhaps that's all I ever can do...

Andrew Rose, 8 May 2014


The Busch Quartet's late Beethoven: the gold standard recordings; brilliant new 32-bit XR remasters

String Quartets   

Quartet No. 7 in F, Op. 59, No. 1 "Rasumovsky"
Quartet No. 12 in E flat, Op.127
Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Op.130
Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op.131
Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op.132
Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op.135 


Busch String Quartet:
Adolf Busch - 1st violin
G�sta Andreasson - 2nd violin
Karl Doktor - viola
Hermann Busch - cello

Studio recordings, 1933-42
Total duration: 3hr 46:42  


Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer:

Andrew Rose           


Website page: pacm093        


"Only the Busch ensemble have presented the Beethoven quartets on record in their full majesty - and daring"- Gramophone, 2013    


Producer's note 

These recordings of the late quartets of Beethoven were recorded in HMV at Abbey Road Studios between 1935 and 1937, supplemented by Columbia's recordings of 1941/42 at the Liederkranz Hall in New York City. As with some previous Pristine restorations I've found the best results have come from LP transcriptions of the original 78s, transferred and issued in the days before digital remastering. With limited options for improving sound quality, the onus on engineers was to get the very best from the original masters, often by either playing the metal plates directly or by pressing quiet vinyl copies from them in order to make their transfers. Although it's unclear here which methods were used, both the CBS and EMI vinyl reissues of later decades proved excellent starting points for the present set.

In each case XR remastering has made significant improvements in sound quality, with the higher frequencies now far clearer than before, especially in the otherwise better-recorded Columbia takes. The slightly boxy sound of the HMV studio recordings has also opened out considerably, and overall the impression is of a much fuller, richer and more dynamic sound than might be anticipated from recordings of this era.

The pitching of the original transfers varied considerably. There was also some pitch variance within individual recordings. Here I've chosen to pitch all of the recordings to standard concert pitch. The use of pitch stabilisation software has also enabled the elimination of wow from the original discs, as well as other pitch anomalies.

The Late Quartets don't normally include the 7th Quartet; with the five quartets, 12-16, complete there was a perfect Quartet No. 7-sized gap in CD1, hence its inclusion here. 


Andrew Rose                  


MP3 Sample

String Quartet No. 13, final movement: Download and listen


Historic Review:  

Gramophone, 1976  


Before the war the Busch Quartet played Beethoven better than any other ensemble, and they still sound marvellous. They were always at their best in the late quartets and with the arrival of these two discs their newly transferred performances of all but the Grosse Fuge are now available. The playing seems more spacious than that of the best modern ensembles; they uncover the musical thought at their leisure. This impression results in part from the very slow tempo in the stow movements, but they can also sound almost leisured even when, according to my watch, the tempo is normal, as in the Scherzo of the F major. I think this is because they seem less prone than modern ensembles to push their own technical accomplishments. Everything is subservient to the music. The slow movement of the E flat is most beautifully done; quaver lengths hardly vary in spite of all Beethoven's changes of tempo, but if the tempo is slow enough at the start they don't need to. The slow movement of the C sharp minor is so thoughtfully played that the Quartet as a whole takes three or four minutes longer than usual, and very moving it sounds. In the very difficult Scherzo that follows the rhythm is uneven in places; here alone complete success eludes the players.



Though the Busch Quartet scooped much less than most ensembles of the 1930s the 1976 listener will certainly notice such scoops as there are. The trick is applied with curious inconsistency. For instance in the first allegro theme of the E flat Busch himself sometimes slides up from the first crotchet to the second (as in the first bar) and sometimes doesn't (as when the same phrase is repeated four bars later); when this phrase is developed by all four players there is similar inconsistency. It must follow that during rehearsals there was never any discussion between the players as to whether they should scoop or not; it was just left to chance like a touch of eighteenth-century improvisation. I do not myself find the trick in any way worrying. Indeed in the first movement of the E flat one can even persuade oneself that it adds a touch of emotion to the sound. The illusion of leisured thinking is here at its very best; the last page seems to me the very perfection of playing. Here and elsewhere pianissimos are a constant wonder.

Bearing in mind that all this music was recorded forty years ago and more, the quality is splendid; furthermore these excellent performances of superb music are very reasonably priced. Strongly recommended.

Review by R.F., November 1976

Recent Article:  

Gramophone, 2013 (excerpt)    


Only the Busch ensemble, in my experience, have presented the Beethoven quartets on record in their full majesty - and daring. Among the qualities that made Adolf Busch a great violinist were his uniquely long bow strokes, controlled with profound intensity and invested with a strong spiritual charge. Believing that the late quartets had to be taken to extremes, he played fast movements very fast - often up to Beethoven's controversial markings - and slow movements very slowly. With a rhythmic sense as rigorous in broad tempi as it was exhilarating in quick tempi, he inspired his colleagues to match him in exceptional feats of concentration. Acting as his own producer, with a trusted HMV engineer such as 'Chick' Fowler, he generally made just one take of each side in a slow movement, so as to keep the intensity going from take to take. The luminous beauty of the Busch Quartet's playing can snatch your breath away in any of their repertoire, but the uninitiated should start with late Beethoven.

Tully Potter, "The Busch Quartet"
, November 2013, excerpt 

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