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The violinist Adolf Busch was born into an extremely musical North German family. Two of his brothers were also exceptional musicians: Fritz as a conductor and Hermann as a cellist. Adolf was taught to play the violin by his father from the age of three, and when he was eleven entered the Cologne Conservatory, where he studied violin with Willy Hess and Bram Eldering. He was also a composition pupil of Fritz Steinbach (Brahms’s favourite conductor) and continued his composition studies with Hugo Grüters in Bonn from 1908, marrying Grüters’s daughter Frieda in 1913. He also worked closely with Max Reger from 1909, playing several of that composer’s works with him, notably the Violin Concerto.

Busch was appointed leader of the Vienna Konzertverein in 1912, under the conductor Ferdinand Löwe, with whose support he founded the Vienna Konzertverein Quartet. It was re-formed as the Busch Quartet in 1919, a year after Busch had begun to teach the violin at the Berlin High School for Music. In 1930 Hermann Busch joined the Quartet as cellist. Under Adolf’s leadership it achieved international fame, and was particularly renowned for its interpretations of the late Beethoven quartets. Another key musical partner was the young pianist Rudolf Serkin, to whom Busch was introduced in Vienna during 1920. They struck up an immediate friendship and soon were playing the duo repertoire for violin and piano to great critical acclaim; from 1929 on, they played everything from memory. With the addition of cellist Hermann they also played much of the piano trio repertoire. Serkin married Busch’s daughter Irene in 1935. Busch was also the busiest violin soloist in Europe, appearing with virtually every leading conductor: with Furtwängler alone he made seventeen appearances, and in 1931 he toured with Toscanini in America.

Alarmed by political developments, Busch settled in Basle in 1927; and he renounced his German citizenship in April 1933 after Nazi demonstrations against Serkin. He took Swiss nationality in 1935, the year in which he formed the Busch Chamber Players to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos at the Florence Maggio Musicale. This was an extremely successful venture and the group’s performances were recorded shortly afterwards by Columbia. The following year HMV recorded Bach’s Orchestral Suites. The Busch Chamber Players also recorded works by Mozart, including the Piano Concerto No. 14 with Serkin as soloist. In 1938 Busch was one of the moving spirits of the Lucerne Festival. That year he extended his boycott to Italy, after Mussolini had introduced anti-Semitic legislation.

In 1939 Busch emigrated to the USA with his son-in-law Serkin, the other members of the Quartet following in 1940. The Quartet continued to play until 1951, apart from breaks in 1941 and 1944–1946: after the war its second violin and viola changed. In America Busch continued to be active as a soloist, chamber musician and director of the re-formed Busch Chamber Players, with whom he recorded concertos by Bach and Mozart and Handel’s Concerti Grossi Op. 6. He founded the Marlboro School of Music in Vermont in 1950, two years before his death in 1952. In addition to his numerous activities as a performer Busch composed, displaying the influence of Reger; and taught, with Yehudi Menuhin being his best-known pupil.

Although Adolf Busch was first and foremost an instrumentalist of the highest distinction, his achievements as the leader of a chamber orchestra without conductor were considerable (he conducted on only a few occasions in the 1920s). His leadership of larger forces displayed the same qualities as his solo and chamber music playing: exceptional clarity of thought, combined with deep musical insight and great intensity of expression. To contemporary ears his performances, with their subtle use of devices such as rubato and portamento, may seem more romantic than is now commonplace. The performances of the Busch Chamber Players recorded before World War II possess, in the words of Robert Philip, an expert on the recordings of the 1930s, ‘…clear textures, sensitive moulding of melodic lines, and a degree of rhythmic poise and vitality that has seldom been equalled’. Of the American recordings, the Handel set is particularly admired.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).

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BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas (Busch) (1931-1941) Naxos Historical
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