About this Recording
8.110954 - BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas (Busch) (1931-1941)


Violin Sonatas Nos. 3, 5 & 9

Had they never met, Adolf Busch (1891-1952) and Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) would still be regarded as two of the greatest Beethoven interpreters of the 20th century. But together they formed something extraordinary, even among the various marvellous ensembles organised by Busch. When they did meet, at the Vienna apartment of mutual friends in 1920, Serkin was only 17 and Busch at 29 was already the most famous German violinist. They were of different backgrounds although they both came from large families and had been given a similar strict training in the Austro-German tradition – Busch at the Cologne Conservatory, Serkin with the piano pedagogue Richard Robert. Whereas Busch was now the acknowledged artistic heir of Joseph Joachim, Serkin had been taken up by the avant garde Viennese group which included the composer Arnold Schoenberg, the architect Adolf Loos and the painter Oskar Kokoschka. But the lad was ready for a change back to the mainstream and he and Busch hit it off straight away. He became almost a son to Adolf and Frieda Busch, lived in their various houses and in 1935 married their daughter Irene.

They helped Serkin to build up his solo career but he also became an integral part of the chamber music circle which revolved round the Busch Quartet. With Serkin as part of the team, piano trios, quartets and quintets could be rehearsed as carefully as string quartets; and when the little conductorless orchestra known as the Busch Chamber Players was formed, concertos could be prepared to the same rigorous standard. But the major outcome of his arrival was the formation of the Busch/Serkin Duo. Adolf Busch believed rightly that in violin sonatas the piano was as important as the violin. He had been used to playing sonatas with his brother Fritz, his father-in-law Hugo Grüters or the composer Max Reger; but Reger had died, the other two had conducting commitments and Busch was ripe for a permanent working arrangement. Of the other pianists with whom he might have struck up a partnership, Edwin Fischer was too romantic in style and Elly Ney was rather eccentric.

With Serkin there were no such difficulties. In him, Busch found a pianist who combined the best attributes of all his previous partners. ‘From the first time we played together it was just like one,’ said Serkin, ‘though of course he was much older than I was. But he was wonderful to me.’ An indefatigable practiser, Serkin would take infinite pains to perfect their joint interpretations. The new duo made their début in Berlin on 25 January 1921, playing a Beethoven programme. At Breslau on 21 March they gave a recital of Reger, Mozart and Schubert; on 22 May they made a low-key Viennese début with a matinée recital; and they rapidly became known as the finest violin-and-piano partnership. It was with Serkin that Busch made his rentrée to London in 1925, after a long absence cause by the Great War.

From 1929 the two performed all their repertoire from memory. ‘We decided page turners were too distracting,’ Serkin explained. But there were obvious advantages in playing by heart – and if it circumscribed their repertoire, it intensified the rapport between them on stage. They made their American début as a duo in 1933 with a recital at the Library of Congress as part of the Coolidge Chamber Music Festival. They returned in 1937 with Beethoven sonata cycles in Washington, New York and Boston and told an interviewer: ‘We specialise in the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Reger and Busoni.’ They could have added Bach to that list; and they did more than anyone to gain acceptance for the Schubert Fantasy and the Schumann sonatas. In Brahms, they drew on advice from the composer’s associates; in Reger, Busch had a unique store of first-hand knowledge; and in Busoni, both players had direct experience of the composer’s wishes and preferences. ‘We played some minor modern composers,’ said Serkin. ‘Occasionally we played something we liked but after we’d learnt it, we sometimes found we didn’t like it so much. And it could have taken a month’s work. Busch didn’t touch Bartók, though I wanted to play some of his music.’

The peak of their joint career was the period from 1925 to 1945: before that, Serkin was the junior partner, while after the Second World War, he was the linch-pin as Busch’s playing became a little less consistent. They had few rivals, although Szymon Goldberg and Lili Kraus matched them in Mozart and the Franco-Belgian ranks boasted Alfred Dubois and Marcel Maas before the war, and Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus after it. At a time when fiddlers such as Heifetz, Elman, Huberman and Kreisler appeared with accompanists who were kept firmly in their place, and even Szigeti sugared his recitals with genre pieces, Busch and Serkin pioneered the modern sonata concert and raised the status of the violin-and-piano duo.

The Beethoven cycle was at the core of the duo’s repertoire and one of their few disagreements arose over the central Tempo di Minuetto of the ‘Little G major’ Sonata, Op. 30 No. 3. When they first rehearsed it, they realised they were each emphasising different aspects of Beethoven’s qualifying marking ‘molto moderato e grazioso’. Putting the piece aside, they found when they returned to it next day that they had each moved closer to the other’s position, thus achieving together what they could never have done on their own, with different partners. That sonata became one of their favourites and it is sad that the recording they made in Berlin at their first HMV/Electrola session, on 23 April 1928, is lost. Because Kreisler and Rachmaninoff recorded it at the same time, the Busch/Serkin version was never remade (it might well have been superior). They did record three other sonatas for HMV, however, of which two are presented here, performances of charm, poise, depth and abundant humour. The Kreutzer comes from their American period when they were ‘poached’ from HMV/Victor by the much smaller American Columbia label. It is a reading of epic power, virtuosity and rhythmic drive. Busch gets more out of the mysterious opening bars than any other violinist and throughout the mighty work, the two men are in absolute accord. The finale pulses with the sort of devilish glee that only the greatest duos can command in this music.

Tully Potter

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