ADOLF BUSCH (1891 - 1952)
Despite not having been taught by him, Adolf Busch was seen by many as a natural successor to Joseph Joachim through his teachers Willy Hess and Bram Eldering—both pupils of Joachim. Busch’s German-school bowing, with minimal finger movement but great flexibility of wrist, won him admiration amongst critics who marvelled at his approach to phrasing and recognised his ethos which prized musical expression above technical showmanship.
Busch studied composition with Fritz Steinbach in Cologne and also learnt much from Hugo Grüters who later became his father-in-law. His Concerto for Orchestra (1929)—the first work of its genre—was, like his other compositions, heavily influenced by Max Reger. A handful of Busch’s works have been recorded, including his Violin Concerto and String Quartet, but are rarely heard in performance today.
Although he was not Jewish and was popular in his native Germany, Busch’s political conscience did not allow him to remain there after Hitler took power; he moved to Basle and refused or cancelled engagements in both Germany and Italy in protest against anti-Semitism. An acclaimed mentor, he undertook private teaching at his Swiss home, taking young artists under his wing during the summer months and insisting on long walks and swimming as part of a holistic regime. Pupils who benefited from this nurture included Stefi Geyer, Erica Morini and Yehudi Menuhin. Busch was welcomed in America and worked there, his pedagogic legacy being cemented in 1951 when he cofounded the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Vermont with Rudolf Serkin as its figurehead. Conceived as a retreat from commercial pressures, the School still welcomes promising young instrumentalists to work intensively alongside established chamber musicians.
Busch embraced the recording process, creating a significant catalogue of live and studio performances much of which inevitably revolves around his famous quartet, one of the finest exponents of Beethoven’s quartets of Busch’s generation. His first chamber ensemble, the Vienna Konzertverein Quartet, comprising principal players of the Konzertverein Orchestra, first appeared at the 1913 Salzburg Festival. The influential Busch Quartet, formed after World War I with an original lineup of Gösta Andreasson (violin), Karl Doktor (viola) and Paul Grümmer (cello)—later replaced by Busch’s brother Hermann—continued until 1951. It was particularly admired for performances of Romantic German repertoire; its 1935 recording of Schubert’s ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ Quartet is especially fine, evidencing the unanimity and tonal warmth that defined the ensemble. Special attention should be drawn to the wonderfully flexible and perfectly-judged treatment of tempo, especially in a ravishing slow movement with well-paced gestures, and an exhilarating finale.
This ensemble, with the inclusion of pianist Rudolf Serkin, also formed the basis of the Busch Chamber Players, a group that to some extent inspired the emergence of the modern chamber orchestra. As early as the 1920s, Busch was giving pioneering performances of Baroque repertoire with piano continuo, as opposed to the fashion for a bass-line played by a number of cellos and basses. His playing and directing of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with his Chamber Players display an impressive tightness of ensemble and an interesting contrast in sonority between Serkin’s faultlessly balanced piano accompaniments and more recent performances with harpsichord.
As a solo artist, some of Busch’s earliest discs include the Brahms-Joachim Hungarian Dances Nos. 2, 5 and 20 recorded by the acoustic process in 1921. These retain the nineteenth-century fondness for portamenti (albeit rather curtailed and occasional) and a controlled vibrato. Tempo volatility in Nos. 2 and 5 results in a very direct rhetoric. A number of excellent sonata recordings made in the 1930s with Serkin are also significant, especially Schumann’s Op. 105 (recorded again, less accurately but arguably more dramatically, in 1951), a fine Beethoven Op. 24 ‘Spring’ Sonata (1933) displaying unmistakably percussive yet still vocal staccati as well as remarkable fleetness in semiquaver runs, and Busch’s own arrangement of Vivaldi’s Sonata RV31 which reins in some of the post-Romantic gestures of his sound whilst retaining a pleasing degree of vibrancy especially in the outer movements.
Of his concerto recordings both Brahms’s Double Concerto (1949, with his brother as cellist) and the same composer’s Violin Concerto (1943) have a white-heat intensity that transcends occasional lapses of control in these live performances. Comparison, in the latter case, with Menuhin’s excellent wartime recording (also from 1943) reveals a more lively and febrile atmosphere from Busch—this was the work that had launched his solo career when he performed it under Steinbach (who had been Brahms’s favourite conductor) in an ‘introductory concert’. This performance by Busch, who trod self-consciously in the footsteps of Brahms’s friend Joachim, is truly one of the most vivid recordings of its time.
Busch’s sound is unmistakable. He practises an on-string staccato where many violinists of the time were replacing it with the now-ubiquitous spiccato and even when he does play off the string the tone is imbued with an unusual depth and sonority. Earlier performances use more portamento than later ones, perhaps a reflection of changing performance tastes during his career, whilst his vibrato became a little wider as he aged—a characteristic often shared by older players. This said, he retained passion and commitment right up to his relatively early demise. Whilst there were doubtless more immaculate technicians, Busch’s legacy as one of the most profound musicians of his time is assured and although his playing style was quite different from Joachim’s, the oft-cited link between the two players holds true at least on a spiritual level.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)