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When reading the waxing eulogies published on every reappearance of the famous Busch Quartet's 1936 recording of "Death & the Maiden" (see my review of Schubert: String Quartets 14 "Death and the Maiden" & 15 / Busch String Quartet), one is lead to thinking that there had been no recording of significance before or around that time, that the Busch Quartet had really initiated a "modern" style of playing, sending back to the oblivion of a bygone stylistic era any recording made before or then. I don't find that the comments about the Busch Quartet's style are always entirely true - there are some traces of the "old-style" in their version as well - but anyway I find it particularly interesting to test that belief against competing recordings made in the early days of the 78rpm. And indeed, I have not found for instance that this notion of the Busch initiating a "modern" style of interpretation is entirely borne out by the 1927 recording by the Capet Quartet (see my review of Capet String Quartet: String Quartets by Schubert, Schumann...): like the Busch Quartet's version it certainly has some old-fashioned stylistic traits (and exactly at the same spots as them: the second movement theme and variations, and the middle trio from the Scherzo), but also a radical, high-strung, unrelenting approach to the "fast" movements, that I find more "modern" than anything I've encountered in the many subsequent recordings that I've heard.
The Calvet Quartet (not to be confused with the former) recorded the same piece in 1937, shortly after the Bush Quartet, and Teldec has given their version back to us, in its Telefunken Legacy series. It comes in a lavishly presented book-like case, integral with the old thick brownish record sleeve so typical of the 78rpms, and with an erudite and invaluable essay by Tully Potter on the origins and offsprings of the Calvet Quartet. For the presentation alone, independent of the qualities of the interpretation, would that CD be a must for any collector.
Certainly in the area of sonics does the Busch Quartet, as transfered by A.C. Griffith on the EMI References reissue mentioned above, have an unquestionable edge. Though the recording appears to have been remastered from the original metal pressings (the notes aren't entirely clear on this) the Calvet sounds constrained and boxy and very much its age, whereas the Busch is afforded spacious and resonant acoustics, which give it unequalled fullness and power - and that does make a huge difference in this piece. But I've listened to the same recordings on the earlier Dante Lys reissue (Quatuor Calvet (Calvet Quartet) - Volume II (recorded 1937) - Schubert: Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 125 No. 1, D. 87; Quartet No. 14 in D minor Op. posth. D. 810 "Death and the Maiden" ("Der Tod und das Mädchen")), and I prefer the Dante sonics: they have more presence and bite. That comes with more surface noise also, but I'm ready to pay that price.
But what about interpretation, then? I have read that the Calvet's is a "gentle" or "small-scale" reading of Schubert's quartet - and overall I don't find this to be valid. True, the beginning of the opening Allegro is taken at a fairly spacious tempo, and 1st fiddler Joseph Calvet does treat the Fz marking before the 2nd theme (1:50) very gently indeed, tenderly even, not as the biting tremor everyone else intones;, but the opening chordal outbursts are explosive, more than with the Busch Quartet, in part because the Calvets play the triplets staccato as Schubert indicates and not legato like the Busch, and in the ensuing harmonic progression they compensate in biting articulation what tension their spacious tempo might have lacked, and stage a fine buildup of tension. Note also how they keep the forward tension at 0:55, where the Busch Quartet relax the tempo and sentimentalize the music (and that's what I call "old-style"). Unlike the Busch again, the keep the tempo flowing when comes the second lyrical subject at 1:52, and as they reach the repeat bar (4:25) the music gathers plenty of energy and tension. There is an awkward side joint at 7:41 (not on the Dante transfer) and thereafter the music loses some of that tension - as if the players lost continuity with the interruptions required by the short duration of a 78rpm disc. There are some moments of less than perfect intonation, but utterly no "old-fashioned" portamento. Likewise, the 3rd movement (Scherzo) is brisk and muscular, with some relaxation of tempo in the central trio, peppered with a bit of - unobtrusive - portamento.
Modern again - and more so here than either the Capet or the Busch Quartet - is the fact that the Calvets take all the repeats in the 2nd movement - the "Death & the Maiden" theme and variations. Otherwise, it is here that, like the Capet Quartet (but in this movement the Busch Quartet's approach is also very disputable in its invariable stateliness) the Calvet sounds the most old-fashioned: despite Schubert's "Andante con moto", the theme is slow and weighty - the Maiden walking in chains to the stake - and then there is awesomely large tempo variance in the ensuing variations : the first very fast, but with very pure intonation from Joseph Calvet throughout, the 2nd brooding, the 3rd slow and aiming at cumulative power and tension rather than figuring a headlong race to the abyss, and so forth. But again, unlike the Capets, there is absolutely no portamento. Similarly, the adoption of a very stately tempo for the Finale (again all repeats taken), while not out of line with some modern versions (Juilliard, Amadeus), is certainly no match for the Busch Quartet's high-strung, almost desperate fury (to say nothing of the Capet Quartet's breathtaking race to the abyss), but it does after a while evince a sense of cumulative, dogged, implacable power, with some passages of quasi-Wagnerian intensity - like the portrait of a limping Alberich.
Not a recording for the ages then (and in my opinion the Busch Quartet's recording also has its share of interpretive flaws), but still an invaluable reissue for any collector interested in the history of interpretation. while I prefer the Dante sonics, this Telefunken/Teldec reissue is worthwhile for its lavish presentation alone. I'm keeping both, as long as shelf-space permits.