This article was written by B.H. Haggin and published in  HiFi/Stereo Review in 1963.

You can find our comments and updates (blue text) within the original article.

Note that all price information is outdated and the performances mentioned might not be available in current catalogues.

Kaj Hjorth August 6th 2011       

 

Essentials of a

Chamber Music Library

by B.H. Haggin

 

A prominent critic points out that chamber music can be approached with the same critical and aesthetic equipment that is brought to the appreciation of orchestral or instrumental music, and then presents a series of recommended recordings

 

THE SAME mind of Beethoven that operated in the creation of the sonorous and multicolored textures of a symphony for large orchestra operated also in the creation of the fine linear textures of a chamber work for a few instruments; and the person who is affected by the progression of Beethoven's musical thought in the symphony will be affected also by the progression in the trio or quartet. Specifically, the mind that is heard operating in the piano's opening statement in the first movement of Beethoven's Concerto No. 4, in the orchestra's reply, and in the continuing dialogue of piano and orchestra —that mind is heard also in the piano's opening statement in the third movement of the "Archduke" Trio, Op. 97, in the repetition of this statement by the violin and cello, and in the continuing conversation of the three instruments. And the person who is affected by the progression in the concerto will be affected also by the progression in the trio: the expressively elevated theme, its developments in the variations that follow, the return to the theme, and its expansion into a wideranging coda with implications of summation that reach sublime conclusions.

 

BEETHOVEN: Trio Op. 97, in B-flat Major ("Archduke")

 

Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals. ANGEL COLH 29 $5.98.

Coupled with Schubert Trio D. 898 on EMI CDH 7610242

 

Istomin, Schneider, and Casals. COLUMBIA ML 4574 $4.98.

 

A more recent recording Istomin, Stern, Rose. SONY SM4K 46738

The "Archduke" trio can be recommended for anyone starting to explore chamber music, whereas the later quartets might need to be heard several times over to be enjoyed fully.

 

In addition to the operation of the composer, a piece of music offers the operation of its performers—in the Beethoven symphony, the precise and beautiful-sounding working together of a hundred musicians under a conductor. In the trio, the integrated working together of the three solo instruments is more clearly heard in a greater profusion of subtler detail, in which there are an immediacy and intimacy of relation in the playing, a sensitiveness of response, and at times an incandescence, that are like what one hears in the playing of a small group of hot jazz musicians. Such is the historic 1928 performance of the "Archduke" Trio by Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals, in which the three strikingly dissimilar individuals—Cortot with his intimate warmth, Thibaud with his grace and elegance, Casals with his dominating power of tone and phrasing—work marvelously together as a result of the playing they had done for their own pleasure for twenty years. And in the1951 Perpignan Festival performance too—in which the even greater power of Casals's tone and phrasing again dominates over playing by Istomin and Schneider that has less grace but more force than Cortot and Thibaud—one hears a performance in which the first movement is more majestic, the slow movement more profoundly reflective, the finale more brilliantly energetic than in the Cortot-Thibaud-Casals performance.

 

BEETHOVEN: Quartets Op. 127, in E-flat Major; 130, in B-flat Major, 131, in C-sharp Minor; 732, in A Minor; 135, in F Major.

 

Budapest Quartet. Columbia ML 4583, 4584, 4586 4587 $4.98 each; SL 174

(complete set) $24.90.

Also issued as SONY MH2K 62873

 

In his book Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, J. W. N. Sullivan

observes that perhaps even Shakespeare never reached that final stage of illumination that is expressed in some of Beethoven's late music.

" That inner illumination is communicated not only by the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony and the concluding movements of the Piano Sonatas Opp. 109 and 111, but by the slow movements of the last string quartets: above all, the expansively elaborate variation movement of the Quartet Op. 132, which carries the illumination to a climax of sheer ecstasy, and also in the variation movement of Op. 127 and opening fugue of Op. 135, whose moving eloquence is achieved with the concentrated brevity of some of Beethoven's late writing. In these works the musical thought proceeds in textures combining the strands of string sound from two violins, a viola and a cello; and what the Budapest Quartet produced in its early years—the integrated progression of the strands of flawless sound that were infiected with unerring musical intelligence and taste—was the finest quartet-playing we had ever heard, and made their performances of the Beethoven works incomparably effective and satisfying. The musical intelligence and the feeling for ensemble operation have continued undiminished, but tone and intonation have deteriorated; and in the newest performances of the last quartets on Columbia M5L 277 and M5S 677, the deterioration is such as to make it advisable to acquire the earlier performances on the five records of ML 4583/7, in which the first violin's tone is still agreeable and the cellist's tone still has its extraordinary dark beauty, fullness, and projective force.

 

SCHUBERT: Quintet Op. 163, in C Major

 

Stern, Schneider, Katims, Casals, Tortelier. COLUMBIA ML 4714 $4.98.

 

From some of Schubert's last writing, as from Beethoven's, we get a communication of life-long experience mastered, profound lessons learned, and final illumination achieved. The communication is most overwhelming in the slow movement of the String Quintet Op. 163, whose other movements have an energy, a dramatic power, a largeness of expressive implication and structural scale that also are comparable with Beethoven's. The Quintet is, then, in every sense—expressive content, style, structure—a great work, and belies the still current idea of Schubert as a Iyricist whose large works are mere garrulous successions of pretty melodies. And it achieves its effect in part through textures that are made denser and more robust by the addition of the second cello to the string quartet.

 

Stern's strangely inexpressive treatment of the first violin part at the beginning of the slow movement, marked espressivo in the score, must be noted in the otherwise superb 1952 Prades Festival performance.

 

SCHUBERT: Quartets Op. 29, in A Minor, Op. posth., in D Minor ("Death and the Maiden"), Op. 161, in G Major.

Budapest Quartet. COLUMBIA ML 4831, 4832, 4833 $4.98 each; SL 194 (complete set) $14.94.

 

The great Schubert is heard again in the powerful and dramatic opening movement of the String Quartet "Death and the Maiden" and its extraordinary perpetum mobile finale, which has an energy and momentum like that of the whirling finale of Schubert's Symphony No. 9. Another such finale ends the Quartet Op. 161, whose opening movement has passages of this supreme melodist's writing which are characteristic in their poignant loveliness, and out of which erupt, characteristically, passages of tremendous dramatic force. The Budapest Quartet's changes of tempo at the beginning of "Death and the Maiden," and its retardations in the opening statements of the Andante of Op. 161, seem to me flaws in the otherwise superb performances.

 

SCHUBERT: Trio Op. 99, in B-flat Major (D898).

 

Cortot, Thibaud and Casals. ANGEL COLH 12 $5.98.

Istomin, Schneider, and Casals. COLUMBIA 4715 $4.98.

 

A performance with magic that quite makes one forget the age of the recording.

This can also be found on EMI CDH 7610242 coupled with Beethovens
Archduke Trio as mentioned above.

 

A beatiful reading is given by Menuhin, Gendron, Menuhin

EMI 077776274324

 

SCHUBERT: Trio Op. 100, in E-flat Major.

Busch-Serkin Trio. ANGEL COLH 43 $5.98.

Horszowski, Schneider, and Casals. COLUMBIA ML 4716 $4.98.

 

It is again the great Schubert that speaks in the imposing opening movement of the Trio Op. 99, the supreme melodist who gives us the marvelous writing of the Andante which follows. And the less imposing Trio Op. 100 is made treasurable by a comparable Andante, a captivating Scherzo, and beautiful writing in the other movements. The 1926 performance of Op. 99 by Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals again has lightness, grace, and intimate warmth, as against the breadth, the powerful inflection, and the expressive force of the 1952 Prades Festival performance of Istomin, Schneider, and Casals. An d as against the similar Prades Fest ival performance of Op. 100 by Horszowski, Schneider, and Casals, the pre-war Busch-Serkin Trio performance offers the sensitively phrased and executed playing of Serkin in his early vears' but with less attractive playing of the strings.

 

MOZART: Quintets K. 406, in C Minor; 515, in C Major; 516, in G Minor: 593, in D Major; 614, in E-flat Major.

Budapest Quartet and Trampler. COLUMBIA ML 5191, 5192, 5193 $4.98 each; M3L 239 (complete set) $14.94

 

MOZART Quartets K. 387, in G Major, 421, in D Minor 428, in E-flat Major; 458 ("Hunt"), in B-flat Major; 464, in A Major; 465, in C Major.

 

Budapest Quartet. COLUMBIA ML 4726, 4727, 4728 $4.98 each; SL 187 (complete set) $14.94.

 

MOZART: Quartet K 499, in D Major. Budapest Quartet. COLUMBIA ML 5007 $4.98.

 

From the immensities of Beethoven and Schubert we turn to the music whose "effect on the mind,'' as W. J. Turner says of Mozart's Overture to the Marriage of Figaro. "is out of all proportion to its impingement on the senscs." The delicate textures of sound in Mozart's music that ravish the ear with their beauty—the textures of the five voices in the first-act quintet in Cosi fan tutte, the textures of winds and strings in the quiet passage just before the concluding flourishes of the G Minor Symphony—pierce the heart with their expressive content. And nowhere is this expressive content as overwhelming a.s in the writing for two violins, two violas, and cello in the G Minor Quintet (K. S1G): in no other work of Mozart do we hear a melancholy so intense and unrelieved. The additional viola, which contributes to this expressive effect by darkening the instrumental color of the writing, also contributes to the somber strangeness of the Minuet and first part of the Trio in the Quintet K. 515, the extraordinary violent intensities of the middle part of the Trio, the poignancy of the Andante. Additional impressive examples of Mozart's writing for this combination are the Quintet K 593, with its affecting slow movement and bustling comedy finale; the Quintet K. 614, with its delightfully high-spirited opening movement and finale; and the Quintet K. 406 (an arrangement of the earlier Serenade K. 388 for winds).

 

Mozart's quartets delight one with delicate textures that are to be heard in no other quartet writing. And they move one with an expressive content of unending variety, in one after another of the famous six quartets dedicated to Haydn—K. 387, 421, 428, 458, 464, and 465—and in the equally fine K. 458 ("Hunt") and K. 499.

 

MOZART Quintet K. 581, in A-Major, for Clarinet and Strings.

 

Members of the Vienna Octet.  LONDON CM 9121 $4.98.

 

Budapest Quartet and Oppenheim. COLUMBIA MS 6127 $5.98, ML S455 $4.98.

 

Mozart, who had great fondness for the clarinet, adds it to the string quartet in the Quintet K. 581, and gives it some of the most exquisite and affecting passages in the flow of lyrical writing in the opening moyement and Larghetto. The members of the Vienna Octet play with more animation than the Budapest Quartet and Oppenheim; their clarinetist plays with more beautiful tone and phrasing; their first violin is more agreeable to the ear.

 

HAYDN: Quartets Op. 20, No. 4, in D Major; Op. 76, No. 2, in D Minor.

 

Fine Arts Quartet. Concert-Disc 1228 and 228 $5.98 each.

 

HAYDN: Quartets Op. 54, No. 1, in G Major; No. 2, in C Major.

Amadeus Quartet. ANGEL 45()24 $3.98.

 

HAYDN: Quartets Op. 74, No. 1, in C Major; Op. 77, No. 1, in G Major.

 

Juilliard Quartet. RCA VICTOR LM 2168 $4.98.

 

Mozart's dedication of his quartets to Haydn expressed his high regard for this composer's music; and what he admired has never been described more perceptively than by Tovey's statements that "the essential character of Haydn's form is dramatic surprise at the moment" and that "nothing in Haydn is difficult to follow, but everything is unexpected."

 

Though the Schneider Quartet's performances on Haydn Society records are no longer in the catalog, they are to be picked up here and there, and are the ones to hunt for and acquire. For their detailed, energetic, sharply rhythmed and therefore enlivening inflections point up the fascinating course of Haydn's lively and inventive mind as no other performances have done.  —as the Budapest Quartet's refined and smooth performances of Op. 76, for example, do not.

 

BOCCHERINI: Quartet Op. 33, No. 6, in A Major.

 

New Music Quartet. BARTOK 911 $5.00.

 

Boccherini is not of the stature of the composers who have been discussed up to this point, but his writing is engagingly and often excitingly fresh and individual in invention and procedures. The catalog still lists the Quartet Op. 33, No. 6, played by the regrettably short-lived New Music Quartet, whose performances exhibited a technical, tonal, musical, and ensemble incandescence beyond anything I can recall hearing. Another record to hunt for, therefore, is Columbia ML 5047, with this group's dazzling performances of four additional quartets of Boccherini. And still others are the Angel records with a number of his quintets, played well by the Quintetto Boccherini.

 

Finally, another composer of lesser stature, Dvorak, whose rich flow of attractive melody is heard not only in his Slavonic Dances and "New World" Symphony but in the Quartets Opp. 51 and 96 and the Piano Quintet Op. 81.

 

DVORAK: Quartets Op. 51, in E-flat Major; Op. 96, in 17 Major ("American").

Interesting because you can hear the same "American" melody fragments as in the "New World Symphony"

 

Budapest Quartet. COLUMBIA ML 5143 $4.98.

 

DVORAK: Quintet Op. 81, in A Major, for Piano and Strings.

 

Budapest Quartet and Curzon COLUMBIA ML 4825 $4.98.

 

A reading of  Op. 81 by Rudolf Firkusny and The Ridge Quartet

recorded 1990 was issued by BMG Music on RCA Classics label 74321 427342

The work itself has a melodius start that is easy to appreciate.

 

As for Brahms, whom the reader may have been waiting for impatiently, his omission from this report is a result not of absentmindedness, but of a critical estimate of his chamber music — that it represents not real creative activity but the pretense of such activity in synthetically contrived thematic substance which is manipulated by formula to fill out a prescribed pattern.

 

The above paragraph long puzzled us since Brahms Trio No 1 is one of the most melodious works in the Chamber Music repertoire. We have come to the conclusion that in addition to what he says above, Mr Haggin disagrees with Brahms way of writing Chamber Music as it was for a bigger orchestra and thus not giving room for dialog between individual instruments, which is the essence of Chamber Music. This essential element could be compared to the dialog between instruments in a Jazz Music. It can be argued that this dialog is probably the most important feature of Chamber Music as compared to other genres of Classical Music.

 

Having presented a considerable number of works, which will take the reader some time to acquaint himself with, I suggest a few to begin with, in the following order:

 

Beethoven: Trio Op, 97 ("Archduke")

Beethoven: Quartet Op. 132 (Might be left for later exploration)

Brahms: Trio No 1

Haydn: Quartet Op. 76, No, 2 Quinten

Haydn: Quartet Op. 76, No, 3 "Kaiserquartett" dem Grafen Erdödy gewidmet.

Mozart: Quartet K, 458 (''Hunt")

Mozart: Quintet in G Minor (K. 516)

Schubert: Trio Op 99 (D898)

Schubert: Quartet Op. 29

Schubert: Quintet Op. 163

Dvorak Quintet Op 81

 

B. H. Haggin has been writing about music for thirty years, including a stint of twenty-one years as the music critic of The Nation, from which he resigned in 1957. Among his books are Music on Records and Music for the Man Who Enjoys Hamlet.

 

JUNE 1963 HIFI/Stereo Review

 

***

 

Comments by Kaj I. Hjorth 8.2011