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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Budapest Live, 11 Nov 2010
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This review is from: Beethoven - Late String Quartets (Audio CD)
I heard the Budapest Quartet's last London recital in the Festival Hall in the 1960s, with the players present in all but one of the performances here. By then they were clearly in decline, but there was no mistaking how good they had once been. Whenever I think of their recordings I always hear one breathtaking bar, Roismann's descending scale in their first HMV 78 rpm recording of the Beethoven Op 59 E minor quartet's first movement, an almost perfect diminuendo of matchless beauty, which stands out no more than it should. For me it sums up their Beethoven style - and also ruled out for good the items in their stereo Beethoven cycle I have heard, which are a travesty of recorded quartet sound. Their mono cycle of the late 1940s and early 1950s gives a much better idea of the character of their playing and its limitations. Their interpretations, once fixed, didn't change much, and it would seem Roismann, the leader, wasn't interested in re-thinking them. They had managed to achieve a balance and blend of tone that hasn't really been equalled since, which went with middle of the road tempi and beautiful phrasing, and it seems they settled for conserving this as best they could. The Busch Quartet, which unlike them had, for various reasons, a precarious existence in America and recorded little there in the 1940s, though signed for the same label as the Budapest, had a much more exploratory character, much less concerned with beauty of sound for its own sake. Yet as its two recordings of Op 130 show, its exploration revealed marvels. Both use Beethoven's second finale, and the later, public performance, unlike the first, succeeds, almost uniquely, in explaining both why Beethoven thought it a better replacement for the original Grosse Fuge and - much more difficult - the great deal the two finales have in common.

As the booklet relates, they were invited to become quartet in residence at the Library of Congress in Washington (imagine today's Houses of Parliament with a resident string quartet) and these recordings are selected from the vast number of concerts they gave there. All but one of them (the Grosse Fuge from 1960) are from the 1940s and fifties. They are fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. They give us the quartet in live performance before an audience, and what a difference it makes. The dynamic range, though restricted at the upper end, allows for a pianissimo you don't get on their commercial discs and even at pianissimo the inner parts are clear and can be heard. So the Heilige Dankgesang ( taken at around their usual moderate pace), allows the polyphonic strands to come through and the argument to be almost transparent, even though the pain is somewhat anaesthetised in comparison to the Busch Quartet version, with its much slower tempo.

Yet while listening to it you become aware of the amount of processing to which these recordings have been subjected. Even the Gramophone's original review remarked on the acoustic effect of the noise reduction, which deprives these live performances of any real atmosphere ( though the very occasional cough survives). And I suspect there has been some manipulation of the dynamic range. Nothing, of course, is said about any of that in the booklet, which nevertheless concerns itself with massaging the already pretty well-established authority of players, performances, and sources, not to mention the obligatory mention of Toscanini as an influence ( they were pretty good at what they did before they heard him, apparently not until they emigrated to the States). But they still remind me of that single breathtaking bar from the E minor quartet more than any other Budapest Quartet Beethoven recordings. For all their faults, buy them. They are unique documents, and you will not hear more purely beautiful Beethoven quartet playing this side of Elysium.
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Beethoven - Late String Quartets
Beethoven - Late String Quartets by Budapest Quartet (Audio CD - 1997)
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