This two-disk collection of the Budapest Quartet’s thoughts on Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets—spanning the years 1943-1962—is a must-have addition to any serious music lover’s holdings. All of the performances were held in The Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium where the fabled musicians were long-time resident artists, enjoying exclusive use of the Library’s Stradivarius instruments. The widely varying recording techniques give every track a slightly different aural spectrum (most notably the 1960’s compared to the 1940’s, yet even less than a month apart, the microphone placement produces a different degree of “closeness” for Nos. 1, 2, 3). There is no doubt these are live: audience members of any age seem to have the maddening knack of saving their best bronchial eruptions for the most dramatic, silent moments. Hearing fingerboard contact, page turns and a few errant open strings also adds to the humanness of the events.
What impresses most is the spirit of the ensemble. There is no doubt the five musicians are totally engaged and giving their all, steeped in a long tradition of European studies, performances and political upheavals they are at one with Beethoven’s desire to push his art to and then beyond established “comfortable” norms. What is most annoying is the complete lack of any exposition repeats. No trains would ever be missed at one of these concerts. Ignoring the structural foundation (if the exposition is not repeated, can the movement be anything but one extended development?) robs the music of its intended balance, some bars of transition and the opportunity—greedily—to hear more from the talents at hand.
No matter who is on second (Edgar Ortenberg, Nos. 1, 2, 3; Alexander Schneider, Nos. 4, 5, 6), the performers’ collective personality and ensemble skills come through most consistently in the Scherzi: No. 1 rollicks with ease, No. 2 zestfully flits about its business while No. 6 can’t fail to bring a smile even to a perpetual curmudgeon’s face.
The Menuetto’s don’t fare quite as well, suffering from tempi that are too brisk to let the music settle, resulting at one point (No. 3) in a final measure that is too abrupt to bid a satisfying farewell.
Marvels also abound. First violin Joseph Roisman’s opening note of No. 1’s Adagio comes so far from nowhere that it initially appeared he missed his entry.
Alexander Schneider puts on a master class in the fine art of spiccato in No. 3, marvellously ironic given that one of his predecessors (Emil Hauser) was unable to bounce his bow at will, leading to much turmoil in the first iteration of the group. Ortenberg and cellist Mischa Schneider lay down a wonderful bed of warmth (No. 3, Andante con moto), inspiring their colleagues to do likewise and, collectively, provide a movement to savour.
The outer movements are a mixed bag of engaging drama (No. 4), saccharine portamenti (No.5—thank goodness that weepy style has largely disappeared), relentless drive, albeit at times rough and ready (No. 3), joyful exuberance (No. 1) and treacherous speeds that leave harmonic subtleties for another day.
During the decades chronicled, the Budapest String Quartet provided legions of listeners with a wide variety of musical experiences all around the globe. Now, anyone can time travel back to these recordings and find out just why they were so admired and revered. JWR