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Chamber Music

Beethoven String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, op. 132, 3rd movement, Busch Quartet

By June 21, 2024No Comments

In 1825, two years before he died, Beethoven suffered from a dreadful bowel inflammation. Throughout spring and summer, he endured the ghastly Brunonian (that is developed by Dr. John Brown) system of medicine that wound up killing more people than the Napoleonic wars. Once recovered, he wrote a string quartet in which he represented the psychology of pain and illness in all its transcendent transparency. His Opus 132, also known as String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, neither has nor intends intrinsic healing power. Beethoven, instead, conveys the changes of perception wrought by disease.

The heart of the quartet might be translated from the German title Beethoven gave the central movement, “Song of Thanksgiving, in the Lydian Mode, Offered to the Divinity by a Convalescent.” A visionary composer’s spiritually uncompromising yet physically compromised vision is “of new strength, not attained and perhaps never.

While all of Beethoven’s Late Quartets are beautiful, this movement of this quartet has always struck me as somehow different. Listening to it is like listening to someone breathing, the way in which the music ebbs and flows. The Busch Quartet’s recording of this movement as well as the other Late Quartets is the most beautiful and heart rending recording that I know of.

The Busch Quartet

The Wiener Konzertvereins-Quartett came together in Vienna at the end of 1912, and after intensive rehearsals – even during Busch’s honeymoon – were first heard on May 25, 1913, playing Haydn at a private concert in Eisenstadt. Their sensational official debut came on August 3 at the Salzburg Festival organised by soprano Lilli Lehmann, with Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartet in F, Op 59 No 1, and Schumann’s String Quartet in A minor, Op 41 No 1: critics compared them with the Joachim Quartet. Their career was in full flood when the Great War came, making it difficult to keep a regular ensemble going. After a slight hiatus when Busch moved to Berlin, in 1919 they were reconstituted as the Busch Quartet with the original cellist, Paul Grümmer. By the end of 1920, Busch’s Swedish pupil Gösta Andreasson was installed as second violinist and the founding viola player, Karl Doktor, had returned from army service. Busch, Andreasson, Doktor and Grümmer made acoustic records for DG in 1922 and played for Eleonora Duse, Maxim Gorky, Arturo Toscanini and Albert Einstein.

Through the 1920s the Busch Quartet were rated the best in Germany and Austria: music societies could sell out a subscription season by including them. Playing some modern music, notably Reger, but mostly classics, the group toured all over Europe – they were hugely popular in Italy. In 1930, Busch’s younger brother Hermann took over the cello chair, in time for the first British tour. Especially after their courageous repudiation of Hitler’s Germany in 1933, the Busch players were constantly heard in London. Their recitals, organised by the Busch Concerts Society, were haunted by intellectuals: Samuel Beckett, Isaiah Berlin, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Victor Gollancz, Michael Tippett…Busch’s young sonata partner Rudolf Serkin, described by one London critic as ‘the perfect fifth’, often joined them.

From September 1932, Fred Gaisberg of HMV recorded them at Abbey Road, and although he typecast them too rigidly, immortal performances resulted: seven Beethoven quartets, two by Schubert and Brahms’s C minor, as well as Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet with Kell and the A major Piano Quartet and F minor Quintet with Serkin. Gaisberg wanted a whole Beethoven cycle, including the viola quintets, and Schubert’s C major Quintet, but the war intervened. The quartet emigrated to New York, making discs for Columbia before the 1942 union ban on recording: three more Beethovens, beautiful versions of Mozart’s K428, Dvořák’s Op 51 and Schumann’s Quintet with Serkin. The Busch Quartet did not prosper in America and after the war were no longer the force they had been, although some penetrative records were made. Their first post-war German tour in 1951 was well received but ill health forced the leader’s retirement and he died in 1952.

Only the Busch ensemble, according to many, have presented the Beethoven quartets on record in their full majesty – and daring. Among the qualities that made Adolf Busch a great violinist were his uniquely long bow strokes, controlled with profound intensity and invested with a strong spiritual charge. Believing that the late quartets had to be taken to extremes, he played fast movements very fast – often up to Beethoven’s controversial markings – and slow movements very slowly. With a rhythmic sense as rigorous in broad tempi as it was exhilarating in quick tempi, he inspired his colleagues to match him in exceptional feats of concentration. Acting as his own producer, with a trusted HMV engineer such as ‘Chick’ Fowler, he generally made just one take of each side in a slow movement, so as to keep the intensity going from take to take. The luminous beauty of the Busch Quartet’s playing can snatch your breath away in any of their repertoire, but the uninitiated should start with late Beethoven.