May 2006

Beethoven - "Rasumovsky" Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 from Op. 59
Busch Quartet
Biddulph 80208-2
Format: CD
Originally released: 1942
Reissue released: 2006

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality **
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Beethoven - The Three "Rasumovsky" String Quartets, Op. 59
Tokyo String Quartet
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807423.24
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2005

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

by Richard Freed

The 1942 recording of Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 1 by the Busch Quartet, on American Columbia (originally on 78s, then one of that company’s earliest LP transfers, and in 1991 a short-lived CD edition), may have accounted for a greater number of registrants in the ranks of chamber-music enthusiasts than any other single recording of a quartet, quintet, trio or what have you. Everything about that performance illustrated the concept of "the inevitability of rightness." It was mellow, compassionate, elegant, hearty, and superbly balanced -- so utterly musical and convincing that one simply forgot about the Busches and welcomed their gloriously unfiltered Beethoven.

If you think I’m exaggerating out of sentimental reminiscence, just listen to the Biddulph reissue of this recording and the slightly earlier one of Op. 59 No. 2. There have not been very many quartet recordings on this level in the last 60-plus years, and it is especially gratifying to have these back and sounding so vital and unapologetically warm-hearted in Rick Torres’s stunning transfers.

The Tokyo Quartet, giving us all three of the "Razumovskys" as the first installment of its new Beethoven cycle on Harmonia Mundi, is admirable in its more objective way, and the sound quality of their recording, both on CD and SACD, is absolutely first-rate. In place of the vitality and warmth of heart that gave the Busches their persuasive sense of natural momentum, these performances seem merely well executed and "correct." The two-disc set is offered for the price of a single CD, and is graced with the outstanding annotation we have come to expect from George Gelles.

The Vermeer Quartet’s Beethoven cycle on Teldec, the Talich’s on Calliope, and the few single CDs so far from the Hagen Quartet (possibly the Busches’ true heirs) on DG remain the best bets for combining interpretive insight with rich, modern sonics.