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Hyperion Records

APR5528 - The Busch-Serkin Duo – Unpublished Recordings

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: February 2007
Total duration: 77 minutes 4 seconds

The Busch-Serkin Duo – Unpublished Recordings
Largo  [8'31]  recorded 2 March 1939
Allegro  [3'27]  recorded 2 March 1939
Adagio  [6'26]  recorded 2 March 1939
Vivace  [2'37]  recorded 2 March 1939
Vivace ma non troppo  [9'44]  recorded 13 October 1936
Adagio – Più andante – Adagio come I  [7'54]  recorded 13 October 1936
Allegro molto moderato – Più moderato  [9'05]  recorded 13 October 1936
Andante – Poco più animato  [7'59]  recorded 13 November 1933
with Aubrey Brain (horn)
Scherzo: Allegro  [7'17]  recorded 13 November 1933
with Aubrey Brain (horn)
Adagio mesto  [8'01]  recorded 13 November 1933
with Aubrey Brain (horn)
Finale: Allegro con brio  [6'03]  recorded 13 November 1933
with Aubrey Brain (horn)

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
To find three unpublished performances of high quality by the greatest violin and piano duo of the twentieth century, from their peak years in the 1930s, is luxury indeed. To be able to present seven previously unknown 78rpm sides featuring the legendary horn player Aubrey Brain is a bonus.

The Busch-Serkin Duo was the outcome of the meeting between Rudolf Serkin – then seventeen – and Adolf Busch in Vienna in 1920. The pianist had finished studying with Arnold Schoenberg and was thinking of going to Paris. Adolf and Frieda Busch suggested Berlin instead and gave him the key to their house – he lived with them for the next fifteen years and in 1935 married their daughter Irene. Busch, Germany’s most charismatic violinist, had been accustomed to playing sonatas with his brother Fritz or his father-in-law Hugo Grüters, but both had other commitments and he was ripe for a more permanent working arrangement.

‘From the first time we played together it was just like one’, said the pianist, ‘though of course he was much older than I was. When I was seventeen, he was twenty-nine. But he was wonderful to me.’ The new Duo made its debut in Berlin on 25 January 1921 with a Beethoven sequence; on 22 May it made a low-key Viennese debut with a matinee recital at the Hochschule, and it rapidly became known as the pre-eminent partnership of the day. It was with Serkin that Busch made his rentrée to London, in 1925. From 1929 they memorized their entire repertoire. ‘We decided page-turners were too distracting’, Serkin explained, but there were obvious advantages in playing by heart – even if it circumscribed their repertoire, it intensified the rapport between them. After their Berlin Brahms evening in 1932, the correspondent of The New York Times wrote: ‘To hear these two artists cooperate in the D minor Sonata […] is to obtain a new conception of the term ‘ensemble’.’ They made their United States debut as a duo in 1933 with a recital at the Library of Congress in the Coolidge Chamber Music Festival. Returning in 1937 with Beethoven sonata cycles in Washington, New York and Boston, they told an interviewer: ‘We specialize in the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Reger and Busoni.’ They could have added Bach to that list – with Serkin at the piano, the Bach sonatas became trios shared among the violin and the keyboard-player’s two hands, as the composer intended. ‘We played some minor modern composers’, Serkin recalled. ‘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.’

From 1939 the Duo was based in America, where in 1950 its members founded the Marlboro summer school in Vermont. Their last performances together were given at recording sessions in October 1951. By then they had done more than any other artists to establish the ‘sonata evening’ and sideline the ‘celebrity recital’. Even if, in the early days, promoters sometimes printed the violinist’s name in larger type, Serkin was an equal partner; indeed, Busch used accompanists for the lesser pieces in his repertoire. Their almost telepathic unanimity sprang from an innate sympathy between them, fostered by years of living in the same house and by the freedom of performing without the printed music. The peak of their joint career was the period 1925 to 1945; before that, Serkin was the junior partner, while after the war he was seen by some as the linchpin, as Busch’s playing became a little less consistent.

They championed all the Bach repertoire available to them, but little of it found its way on to records. This wonderful performance of the F minor Sonata, a valuable addition to their discography, may not be recorded in high fidelity but it is inimitably interpreted. The second movement is a vivid reminder that both men enjoyed listening to jazz and blues and even attempted to master these forms in domestic surroundings. Serkin bought a saxophone and taught himself to make music on it, while Busch wrote pieces for the instrument, among them his Quintet for saxophone and string quartet. He also wrote works based on spirituals, his favourite American music.

The Duo recorded Brahms’s G major Sonata for HMV in 1931 but that famous performance was taken down using the old stop-go 78rpm method: the work was split into five-minute ‘takes’ and each take was repeated before the players went on to the next one. Now we can hear them ‘on the wing’, five years later, performing live in an evening broadcast for the BBC. Especially notable is Busch’s wonderful parlando bowing in the central slow movement. We must hope that the Beethoven E flat Sonata from this recital will turn up some day.

Busch and Serkin are synonymous with the Brahms Horn Trio, even though they gave only two public performances of it. Through Brahms’s friend Gustav Friedrich Ophüls, Busch got to know the work in 1910, after his studies at the Cologne Conservatory. He played it most often at home, in the composer’s arrangement substituting a viola for the horn, but during his time in Vienna (1912–18) he performed it in public with Karl Stiegler, first horn of the Court Opera. The suggestion for a recording with Brain, in the Brahms centenary year of 1933, came from HMV’s Fred Gaisberg. The Duo was willing but wanted to audition Brain. ‘We have not the slightest hesitation in agreeing that the gentlemen shall first hear Mr Aubrey Brain,’ Gaisberg responded, ‘but we would remind you that Mr Brain is the finest living horn player, and is known throughout the English-speaking world. He stands unique perhaps in all ages. Mr Busch must certainly have heard him, as he is the first horn player of the BBC Orchestra. Dr Adrian Boult will be only too pleased to substantiate what we say.’

In Basel, where they had lived since 1927, the two men prepared their parts meticulously – evidently with the horn part being played on the viola by one of Busch’s pupils – but they arrived at Studio 3, Abbey Road, on 16 May 1933 in a state of turmoil. Since their most recent London sessions in March, their lives had been turned upside-down. Adolf Hitler was now in power in Germany. The Duo had experienced anti-Semitic demonstrations against Serkin in cities where previously the two players had been acclaimed, and Busch’s brother Fritz was ousted from the Saxon State Opera. The final straw came on 1 April, when the Busch Quartet played Haydn’s Seven Last Words in Berlin. After witnessing the Nazi boycott of Jewish shops and businesses, Busch renounced his native country. He would not play in Germany again during the Third Reich, despite Hitler’s efforts to tempt ‘our German violinist’ back.

At Abbey Road the Duo found that Aubrey Brain was a musician after their own hearts. Wide-bore German horns, less thrilling sonically than the French type but easier to play, had been making inroads into the London orchestras, but Brain was a stalwart of the English narrow-bore ‘peashooter’ school, with perfect pitch and superb intonation. By coincidence he played a Labbaye hand-horn from the same year as Brahms’s Trio, 1865; although it was fitted with English-made valves, he produced on it a tone similar to that envisaged by the composer, who specified a Waldhorn and wrote for the natural instrument’s characteristic intervals.

The three men made three takes of each half of the opening movement. No doubt Busch asked for a third take of Side 1 because of his tiny misbowing on Take 2. Brain probably wanted a third take of Side 2 because he made a slight fluff – unfortunately he did the same on Take 3. Two takes of each half of the Scherzo were negotiated without mishap; then the session moved into single takes, presumably to save Brain’s precious lips. Even after the session, Busch and Serkin were surprised that Brain – ‘who is certainly a great artist’ – had been offered a royalty rather than a session fee, but Brain had already signed a contract giving him a third of the ten per cent royalty. As luck would have it, a rare technical slip by HMV intervened: at the factory, two of the metal master discs (made from the wax ‘positives’ cut at the studio) were ‘cracked in process’. Side 1, Take 1 was not an irreparable loss but the unique take of Side 5 was, so a second session was necessary.

There was another factor. At the May sessions, Serkin recorded Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata and the Brahms Trio on a Bechstein, as was his wont, but used a rival make of piano for two additional takes of Beethoven’s C minor Sonata (most of which had been recorded the previous September). This switch, which meant that the published set of the C minor Sonata was played on two different instruments, was not simply a matter of studio expediency, as he explained: ‘When Hitler came to power there were two brothers Bechstein. One of them was my friend, Karl, and his father was a Nazi. Karl was not, so Karl was pushed out and the firm became Nazi and, of course, I stopped playing and wanted to play Steinways.’

Then a third situation developed. By the time Busch, Serkin and Brain reconvened in Studio 3 on 13 November to do the necessary repair work on the Trio, Aubrey Brain had acquired a different French horn in tragi-comic circumstances. In the biography of his son Dennis by Stephen Pettitt, we read: ‘When, in 1933, the London Philharmonic replaced the London Symphony as the ‘pit’ orchestra at Covent Garden, a number of brand-new Raoux horns were found under the stage. They were no use to the LPO so they were sold; Aubrey bought two of them – one for himself and one as a spare […] He found a use for one of them sooner than he imagined when he succeeded in backing his car over his original instrument, completely flattening the crook.’

As Serkin was now playing a Steinway rather than the Bechstein used at the first session, and Brain had a new horn, everyone was easily persuaded to play the entire work through again; the outcome was a classic, still unsurpassed interpretation. At a London recital by Busch and Serkin the following March Brain joined them after the interval for the Trio – a timely trailer for the release of the recording. In the opinion of the man from The Times, the concert performance ‘left the conviction […] that for once the Horn Trio had been heard as the composer thought it’. The Duo did not programme the work again until 1946 – in a Boston recital with Willem Valkenier of the Boston Symphony. Aubrey Brain went on to become an indispensable member of the Busch Chamber Players, Adolf Busch’s conductorless orchestra; and son Dennis made his professional debut sitting next to him in the ensemble.

Great as the published recording of the Horn Trio is, this earlier version, taken from Busch’s test pressings, has a marvellous freshness to it. Those who like to identify different instrumental timbres should lend a particularly close ear to the slow movement, which begins with Serkin playing a Steinway and Brain a Raoux (on the published take from the November session) and ends with Serkin on a Bechstein and Brain on a Labbaye. Roger Beardsley has chosen the takes from the first two movements which Busch appeared to favour – he preferred Take 2 of Side 1, despite his momentary bowing mishap.

Tully Potter © 2007

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