Some two decades ago, I found myself preparing for a trip to Niagara Falls, where I was to meet a lady. I had not been to Niagara Falls before, though I was familiar with the movie Niagara (Hathaway, 1953), which has sometimes been called the best Hitchcock movie not by Hitchcock. I didn’t want to wind up as some did in that remarkable movie, and I had other things to think about as well. One was the proximity of Watkins Glen and the legendary presences of such racing drivers as Jim Clark and Graham Hill, among others. And yet another was a CD featuring the playing of Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin. They were legends in their own way, and vivid presences, too, in their musical presentation.
On the road, the music on the CD was knockout new to me, though it should not have been—I wasn’t proud of that. I had learned a bit about the glories of Franz Schubert decades before, when I was a kid. The “heavenly length” of Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony (as Robert Schumann put it) was so much, and the divine curtailment of the “Unfinished” Symphony is not much less. The death-haunted “Unfinished” (or Die Unvollendete, if we wish to boost the annoying possibilities) is imposingly quoted in such film noirs as Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944), Sorry, Wrong Number (Litvak, 1948) and Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, 1955). But even at his best, Schubert leads on to more and other Schubert, as I was finding out. As I had learned before, travel is an education. And as I had not learned before, if you have some Adolf Busch, you don’t need much Anheuser-Busch, if any.
So there I was, clocking miles that would add up to some hundreds, and trying to take in a new piece of music—and that music was something else. It was different, challenging, and it was also a lesson, or more than one lesson. It was a lesson about Adolf Busch, a violinist who didn’t sound like anyone else—he reminded me solely of Joseph Szigeti in his refusal of fiddling opportunities. And it was a multifaceted lesson also about Schubert. Those two glorious symphonies of his should have signified to me that there was more, much more, where that came from, in various forms of chamber music—music that is at least unsurpassed if it is not unequaled.
I am thinking specifically about the Fantasia in C Major for Violin and Piano, D. 934, and also the Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat Major, D. 929, that accompanied it. That was some CD—two masterly performances of late Schubert visionary works—and it was something more, proving the musical value of 1930’s recording standards and their manifest success, even today. So there were for me at least three unforgettable lessons, about Adolf Busch and his associates, about Schubert’s chamber music, and even about the appealing sound of those old recordings. But I did not know then how far such awareness was going to take me. If I had known how long the lesson would unfold, I would still have persevered, for hardly anything I had ever learned turned out so deeply gratifying. And much or even most of that revelation was decisively influenced by the female who was not so hard to pick out in a crowd: She was the one with the violin case. She was familiar with the pieces I mentioned to her, though she had played the other piano trio by Schubert, the B-flat Major, D. 898, rather than the one I had heard. As for a Russian student’s subsequent presentation of the violin part of that particular fantasia, all she had to say was, “I’m appalled.” And I could see, or rather hear, why.
And then there was the matter of which fantasy or fantasia was to be considered, for that one title was significantly repeated by Schubert. The freedom that the title suggests was important to him, and therefore, he thought that it was a particular signal to musicians and music-lovers as well. The well-known Wanderer Fantasy is powerful in itself and in its influence on others such as Franz Liszt, in more than one way. And we would have to acknowledge also the Schubert Fantasie in F Minor for Four Hands, D. 940, which was not a part of the Busch Quartet’s repertory though it was probably known to Serkin, who certainly played the Wanderer Fantasy. The charming work for four hands has been excellently recorded in our time by notable performers, such as Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu.
And this truth evokes the broad spread of the indispensable Schubert, who was, it seems, always delivering compelling accomplishments in yet another formulation or musical pattern. Die Winterreise, D. 911, beckons to us as delivered by Fischer-Dieskau (or “Fish Dish”) and Moore, through which we are reminded that song was central to Schubert’s imagination. Even so, there is so much more that is provided, we hardly know where to begin. After all, even the power of the Busch Quartet and assisting artists was limited to only a few recordings. Outside their presentation, but not outside of their grasp, is the Quintet in C Major, Op. 163, D. 956—the one with two cellos. This is an exquisite work that has hair-raising power and beauty. But within the modest scope of the Busch recordings are the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810, and the Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D. 877, which is, rather unbelievably, even better than the former. The Busch Quartet also recorded the Schubert String Quartet in B-flat Major, D. 112. They left the piano works to Schnabel, who pioneered the reclamation of the piano sonatas in the first half of the 20th century. (Legend has it that Rachmaninoff, when informed that Schnabel was performing the Schubert sonatas, said that “Schubert didn’t write any sonatas,” because that was what his Russian background had told him!) Schnabel’s last recording, in 1950 I think, was of the two gatherings of the eight impromptus of Schubert, and delightful things they are. Today, I would have to say that the rendition of Krystian Zimerman is the best that I have ever heard. But the best performance I ever heard of the two Schubert quartets I have cited is still that of the Busch Quartet! Add to those the Fantasy and the Piano Trio, still lapel-grabbing things after all these years, and you have quite an achievement. Yet that is far from all of this stalwart contribution.
The Schubert works of the Busch Quartet take up only a bit more than two compact discs; the Beethoven works take up more than five. In The Complete Warner Recordings of Adolf Busch and the Busch Quartet, there are altogether 16 discs, including much Brahms, some minor pieces, and four of Bach. There being—as far as I’m concerned—no question about the desirability of the collection, then the question that remains must concern the price. But before we go over that point, perhaps a bit more description will complete the count of what is provided.
What unites these performances is the presence of Adolf Busch and his brother Hermann Busch, the cellist, and others, as well as the future son-in-law, Rudolf Serkin. They are not united by the completeness of more capacious contemporary recordings. The Beethoven Op. 18, No. 1, is here, but none of the other early quartets. The “Razumovsky” Quartet, Op. 59, No. 3, is here, but none of the other middle quartets. Then the late quartets, numbers 11 through 16, are here, including of course the one in C-sharp Minor, which Beethoven declared his greatest work. The Grosse Fuge in B-flat Major, Op. 133, is erroneously listed as “Op. 122.” And Beethoven’s Violin Sonata, Op. 12, No. 3 gives Serkin a place, as do the “Spring” Sonata No. 5 in F Major and the No. 7 in C Minor—and as do singular examples of Mozart and Schumann.
Brahms is represented by the Piano Quartets, Op. 25 and 26, the Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, the first two violin sonatas, the Horn Trio, the Clarinet Quintet, and the String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1 (known to some few as the “Kiss Me Deadly” Quartet, because that work is briefly excerpted in the Aldrich film). And Bach is represented by six Brandenburg Concerti and four Orchestral Suites with the reinforcement of a flute, an oboe, a bassoon, and a trumpet. And there are a Bach violin partita and violin sonatas. It is not only an education to hear Bach as it used to be played—though rarely so well—but it is also a pointed reminder that today’s historically oriented performances of the baroque are musically reductive and even destructive.
But taken as a whole, Adolf Busch & the Busch Quartet: The Complete Warner Recordings is a collection of 16 compact discs, most of which are over 70 minutes long. Amazon sells this collection for just over $40, which makes it not only a gold mine, but a bargain as well, as the distinguished readers of Chronicles should know.
And this unique presentation of music-making represents even more than itself—it represents also the other side of German culture and values that was either squelched or perverted by the Nazis in the 1930’s. Adolf Busch was fierce in his denunciation of the Nazis, and he did not hesitate to leave Germany and even Europe. Since wherever he was, there was a festival of music, it made sense then and makes sense now that the Marlboro festival and music school, which he established in Vermont, should represent him in spirit even to this day, so many years after his death in 1951.
And though some of this material is available on YouTube, it also makes sense to have your own copies of the remarkable, even singular recordings of the Busch Quartet so that on the road, you are not dependent on unreliable sources such as National Public Radio to spite your attention with ill-chosen performances, rather than the glorious ones that satisfy the musical imagination.