Beethoven: Complete String Quartets. Budapest String Quartet. Sony 88985497062 (12 Compact Discs, Recorded 1951-52)

By Rooney, Dennis D. | ARSC Journal, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets. Budapest String Quartet. Sony 88985497062 (12 Compact Discs, Recorded 1951-52)


Rooney, Dennis D., ARSC Journal


Beethoven: Complete String Quartets. Budapest String Quartet. Sony 88985497062 (12 Compact Discs, recorded 1951-52).

The Budapest String Quartet existed from 1917 to 1967. For thirty-five of those years, Joseph Roisman was the first violin, having moved from the second violin chair to replace the departed Emil Hauser, the last but one of the founding Hungarian members. Roisman quickly moved to add brothers Alexander (Sasha) and Moses (Mischa) Schneider as second violin and cellist, respectively. In 1936, Boris Kroyt succeeded Istvan Ipolyi as violist, and that foursome, now all Russian Jews, continued until 1943, when Sasha departed, to be replaced first by Edgar Ortenberg, who remained until 1949, then by Jac Gorodetzky, whose second violin playing is documented in these 1951-52 recordings of the Beethoven Quartets.

It was their U. S. tour of 1936-37 that brought the BSQ real success in what was soon to become their adopted country. They benefited from a publicity machine that used print and electronic media to place them on a par with such musical powerhouses as Heifetz, Horowitz, and Toscanini. Despite their American success they discovered that HMV's domestic affiliate, Victor, was not especially keen to record them. Their HMV recordings, made in Germany and England, were already well known, but only a small number were made for Victor to complete a contract that expired in 1940. The BSQ then decamped for Columbia, which was ambitiously signing up classical performers in order to rebuild a catalogue sadly depleted during the thirties. Despite the cessation of all recording during the 1942-44 "Petrillo Ban" and a wartime shortage of shellac, from 1940 until the end of that decade (which also saw the debut of the long-playing microgroove vinyl disc in 1948), their recording income grew considerably. In his 1993 history of the BSQ, Con Brio: Four Russians Called the Budapest String Quartet, Nat Brandt states that between 1941 and 1946, Columbia paid the quartet $60,000 in royalties.

Over a span of fifteen years, the BSQ had recorded all but two movements of the Beethoven Quartets at various times for HMV, Victor, and Columbia. With the success of its LP record, Columbia Masterworks decided to record a new complete set that would acknowledge the BSQ's affiliation (from 1940) with the Library of Congress, where they performed at the Coolidge Auditorium on four Stradivari instruments donated to the nation by Gertrude Clarke Whittall. The use of those instruments at that venue was accompanied by a 1946-47 series of Beethoven Quartets by the Paganini Quartet led by Henri Temianka, named for the four different Stradivari instruments they played, once owned by Niccolo Paganini and purchased in toto for their use by another noted musical patroness, Mrs. William Andrews Clark, who left them to Washington's Corcoran Gallery. Columbia's rival, RCA Victor, began recording the Paganini in several Beethoven Quartets in 1947.

By the time these 1951-52 recordings were made, Jac Gorodetzky had been the BSQ's second violinist for two years and had already begun to show signs of anxiety, depression, and stage fright. Under the pressure of touring, he became increasingly troubled until he ended his life with an overdose of barbiturates in his Washington, DC, hotel room in 1955. His death shocked his colleagues; however, it ultimately led to the return of Sasha Schneider as second violinist. Thus reunited, the BSQ continued to perform until the early sixties, when illness and Roisman's deteriorating bow arm began to limit their appearances. Nevertheless, they were able to record a new Beethoven cycle in stereo, which displaced the present recordings in the Columbia catalogue. While some of the 1951-52 cycle was reissued on Odyssey, its release was never completed due to poor sales. Why buy mono when the same artists (essentially) could be heard in stereo?

Magnetic tape made commercial recording in the Coolidge Auditorium logistically possible. …

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