I don't have this recent reissue, but the early release from 1988 on EMI references with transfers made by A.C. Griffiths, Schubert: String Quartets 14 "Death and the Maiden" & 15 / Busch String Quartet, so I can't comment on the sound of this 2006 remastering. But the sonics aren't really the issue here, these recordings have been reissued by a number of labels, Pearl, Dutton, Beulah, Pristine Audio (make a search on "Schubert Busch Quartet" and they'll show up), yet I'm perfectly satisfied with my early EMI transfer, the surface noise is limited and the music comes through full bloom. It may be that my ears are insufficiently discriminating, and if you want to make sure about yours, go to the download page of Pristine's transfer of the Busch Quartet's 15th Quartet; Pristine is the famous label specializing in refurbishments of old recordings that have been hailed as miracles, and the download page gives a fascinating sample of the five stages of audio restoration the recording has been subjected to:
1. raw transfer from 78s
2. Following declicking and decrackling, the signal is put into mono, which further cancels unwanted noise and boosts the signal content
3. The entire recording is re-equalised, using a modern recording of the same piece as a guide, in order to help correct the tonal balance, with the effect of filling out the lower end body of the sound whilst reining in harshness at the top end
4. The re-equalised recording is now subjected to targeted digital noise reduction, working both on the hiss and more general broadband noise
5. Following an intensive period of 'hands on' manual restoration, examining and rectifying individual clicks, swishes, bumps, and other unwanted noises, the final stage is the application of a subtle Ambient Stereo effect, to extract the natural ambience captured in the recording and spread it discretely across the stereo sound stage
I'm personally very happy with stage 2, and the early EMI transfer provides at least the sonic equivalent. Stage 5 doesn't add enough for me to feel like I need to make the investment.
For the issue here is music, and interpretation. Ever since their publication at the end of the 1930s these two recordings have been hailed as versions of reference, and have retained their legendary status, as witnessed by the other reviewers here (and you will find more glowing reviews under the EMI Reference entry). None were recording premieres. The "Death and the Maiden" Quartet in particular had been a popular item in the early 78s era, and I've counted 5 recordings made in the 1920s: the Leo Abkov String Quartet in circa 1924 (World Record), the British Edith Lorand SQ (Parlophone 1925), the London String Quartet (1925 Columbia, reissued by the Canadian label St-Laurent Studio, available directly from their website, also downloadable, free but unedited, from CHARM, the research center for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music), the Budapest String Quartet (their first recording, from 1927/8, once reissued on a hard-to-find Novello CD, but now downloadable free fom 78 toeren klassiek) and the French Capet SQ from 1928 (Schubert, schumann, Debussy, Ravel: String Quartets; Franck: Piano Quintet or Haydn: Lark; Schubert: Death and the Maiden; Beethoven: String Quartet No. 5, Op. 18/5). I haven't spotted so many in the 1930s, maybe because of the Depression: other than the Busch Quartet (recorded on October 16, 1936), the Roth Quartet in 1936 (American Columbia, also on CHARM - it is only later that Janos Starker would replace the Quartet's cellist Janos Scholz), and the Calvet Quartet in 1937 (Telefunken, Schubert: Quartets Nos. 14 & 10). The G-Major on the other hand was not so popular with the recording companies as the D-Minor, and the composition's recording premiere had been made only four years earlier, by the Kolisch Quartet (The Kolisch Quartet plays Schubert Quartets), at least of the complete work: the recording made in 1927 by the Flonzaley Quartet was a heavily cut version, Plays Romantic Masterworks.
Yet, not that I wish to debunk idols, but I've never been entirely convinced by the Busch's Death & the Maiden and never quite understood the universal plaudits it attracted, other than by the notion that old habits override precise listening. In the first movement my reservations have to do with fine points of articulation and phrasings, by which the players tend to unduly sentimentalize the music and underline its "maiden" aspect at the expense of its "death" character. Note, for instance, how, at the very beginning, they legatoize the triplet chords written staccato by Schubert, which deprives them of some of their raging bite. The ensuing harmonic progression at 0:30 has the required staccato bite, but hear again how they tend to sentimentalize the music at the resolution of that harmonic progression, at 0:55, giving it already the character of "the maiden" rather than maintaining the urgency and bite of raging death. Not that the first movement is without such moments of urgency, vehemence and tension, and in fact as the movement develops they dominate, but those legato phrasings that rob the music of some of its impact and that tendency to sentimentalize when come the lyrical moments do recur constantly: for legato, try the chordal progression at 3:04, and for sentimentalizing, just go to the second subject at 2:00, or to the beginning of the final phrase, at 10:50, with its incredibly schmaltzy portamento - I'm very tolerant to those old-time expressive devices and I think portamento can have much charm, but this is a Gipsy fiddler playing Schubert's Quartet for the couple seated at the terrace of the café in Vienna. If I really stretch my understanding abilities, maybe the Busch Quartet indeed wanted to convey the notion of Death disguised as a Gipsy fiddler luring the Maiden, as in Erlkönig with the ailing child? Still: there may have been less subtletly and shadings with the the Capet Quartet in 1928 or the Calvet Quartet in 1937, but there was more unrelenting urgency and drama (especially with the former). On the basis of that first movement, Adolf Busch isn't a top class virtuoso either (and I don't think he or his admirers ever claimed that he was), his runs tend to stick and acquire a nasal tone, and at 8:35 I thought viola player Karl Doktor had been caught skidding off-kilter - and trapped there for eternity, of course - but no: since he repeats his whining semi-tone downward slide at 8:44, it is obviously meant as an expressive device, and it is grotesque.
The second movement is the most exceptionable of all. On the positive side, the attempt to keep a unitiy of tempo (Schubert indicates no tempo change throughout the variations). On the negative (other than the fact that almost no repeats are taken, because of the time constraints of 78s), the choice of a very held-back tempo. The problem with that is not so much that it does not conform to Schubert's "Andante con moto" indication, and the slow tempo does lend a nice, funeral and almost despondent character to the statement of the theme, or a ruminative and mourning one to the second variation (3:07), and allows for a fine build-up in intensity in the final variation (6:34). But the approach also results in some awkwardly slow variations, with a character that is not so convincing: meek and plangent for variation 1 (1:57), ponderously sluggish for variation 3 (4:17), sentimentally mawkish for variation 4 (5:19).
No such reservations in the last two movements: the Scherzo displays a raging power and commendably no mawkish slow down in the central trio, and the finale (repeats taken), although it doesn't approach the Capet Quartet's race to the abyss (and nobody ever has), has a kind of high-strung, quasi-desperate fury (and no trace of technical discomfort with Busch); in fact, other than the Capet Quartet, very few ensembles in the recorded history of Schubert's Quartet have taken it at a swifter tempo: among them, the Amadeus Quartet's first version from 1953 (Amadeus Quartet: Haydn, Schubert, Brahms 1951-1957) and the Juilliard Quartet's first version from 1959 (Juilliard String Quartet Plays Beethoven, Schubert). Had the first two movements been on the same level of intensity as the two last, this would truly be a legendary version.
More even than their "Death and the Maiden", it is the Busch Quartet's G-Major (No. 15), recorded in September 1938, that deserves I think its legendary status, first on account of the ensemble's tonal opulence, almost symphonic (despite a certain lack of bloom of the cello in his countermelodies in the first movement 11:30). Like the earlier version by the Kolisch Quartet, and like later the Budapest Quartet in 1953 (Schubert: Quartets Nos. 12-15 [Germany]), the Busch take a uniquely urgent and dramatic view of the first movement (among those I've heard only the Hungarian Quartet's 1968 recording is faster, Schubert: String Quartets 13 - 15 & String Quintet; Hungarian Quartet), but one that loses nothing of the music's pathos. But where the Busch Quartet stray from the Kolisch Quartet, other than in tonal opulence, is in their relaxing of tempo when comes the second subject at 2:00, a characteristic march-theme, which they take slightly but perceptibly slower, giving it a more genial gait than Kolisch's bouncy and dance-like allure, establishing an interpretive trend that would be followed by most subsequent versions. Yet, while it makes sense expressively, it is not so coherent structurally, since the rhytmic figure of the march had first been stated just before (at 1:38, at the apex of the preceding crescendo), and the relaxing of tempo looses the relationship. But, especially compared to subsequent versions, the Busch's relaxing of tempo isn't exaggerated either, and it is a small detail that will be of interest only to intellectuals for whom structural integrity has a role to play in interpreting music, if subservient to expressive concern.
But the apex of the Busch's reading is their beautiful Andante un poco moto, vehement and full of pathos, a giant expressive jump from the Kolisch Quartet (who took it as a brisk march, more an Andante con moto or an Allegretto) and a reason alone to justify this version's standing in posterity. So is the Mendelssohnian lightness of the Scherzo, but the middle Trio is taken at a very held back tempo (and I question that it is really the "allegretto" Schubert had in mind) which is not free of sentimentalizing the music - this is really the only trace of "old-style" in the Busch Quartet's reading. In this respect the old Flonzaley Quartet was incomparably more straightforward and "modern". The recording concludes with a finale in which the forward thrust of Schubert's obsessive tarantella rhythm is maintained throughout.
A legend minus the middle trio of the scherzo still deserves to be considered a legend.