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ClassicsOnline Home » MOZART: Piano Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / Clarinet Quintet (Szell, Goodman, Budapest Qt) (1938, 1946)
Restored from original undubbed pressings, this adventurous 1938 recording of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet brings together “the King of Swing”, Benny Goodman, and the great Budapest String Quartet. A firm favourite with the record-buying public, this interpretation is notable for Goodman’s extrovert, outdoor style, and the Quartet’s inimitable playing. The 1946 Hollywood recordings of the two Mozart Piano Quartets were the first recordings George Szell made in the United States, just before he assumed the directorship of the Cleveland Orchestra. Already a conductor of almost three decades’ experience, Szell had begun his career as a prodigy in both composition and piano playing. In these recordings his aristocratic playing offsets the Budapest’s gorgeous string playing to perfection, with Boris Kroyt’s lovely tone on the viola coming through the texture marvellously.
By David Denton
By the time these recordings were made in 1938 and 1946 the
legendary Budapest String Quartet had lost all of its original Hungarian musicians
and was now totally made up of Russians working in America. That it was still
an outstanding group is not in doubt, but they had been brought up in the Austro-German
style, and though quite different to their predecessors, it was admirable training
for Mozart. Probably for commercial considerations they were joined by the great
jazz clarinettist, Benny Goodman, and it makes amusing reading in today's world
of crossover artists that the recording label printed a long explanation why
they had taken this bold step. In the event it was a gorgeous mismatch, Goodman's
bright and breezy approach at odds with the very studied playing of the Budapest.
So a novelty it remains and was very different to the combination with George
Szell, an eminent conductor who had started out life as a pianist and composer.
Whereas Goodman does his own thing, Szell marries perfectly with the string
trio, at all times avoiding the trap of creating a chamber piano concerto. By
comparison with today's performances these were sober accounts that were perfectly
paced and shaped with only a hint of the happiness Mozart had embedded in his
scores. Much of that atmosphere is accentuated by the dry recorded sound, its
analytical quality showing the exactitude of the Budapest's intonation and ensemble.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
The Two Piano Quartets • Clarinet Quintet K. 581
Recordings which go 'against the grain' of an artist's usual repertoire or inclinations can be very interesting – and so it proved when Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, was teamed with the Budapest Quartet. As with many of the most adventurous recording initiatives of the 1930s, the motivation for Goodman to tackle Mozart came from John Hammond, the scion of a socially advantaged New York family who was brought up to love the classics but became an avid jazz fan. Goodman first attempted the A major Quintet at a soirée in the ballroom of the Hammond home on East 91st Street, in 1935. The string quartet comprised the violinists John Dembeck and Ronald Murat, Hammond on viola, and Artie Bernstein on cello, and the audience was an integrated one, Harlem jazzmen rubbing shoulders with New York socialites. 'In 1936 Benny recorded [the Mozart Quintet] with the Pro Arte String Quartet for Victor, records which did not turn out well,' Hammond recalled. 'The string players did not treat Benny with the respect he deserved, and in the uncomfortable atmosphere he froze.' Two years later Goodman tried again. Hammond had got to know Alexander 'Sasha' Schneider, second violinist of the Budapest Quartet and, like him, very much a man about town with a champagne lifestyle. Hammond took Schneider to a club to hear Goodman's jazz group play, the connection was made and Goodman found the Russians much more amenable than the Belgians of the Quatuor Pro Arte.
Russians from Budapest? That always needs a line or two of explanation. The Budapest Quartet had indeed started out in 1917 with three Hungarians and one Budapest-based Dutchman, but in 1927 a Russian infiltration had begun. Since the autumn of 1936 the ensemble had consisted entirely of Russians, giving rise to any number of jokes. The members of the group were very serious about their work, however: they had all studied in Germany as well as in their native land; and their style mixed Austro-German style with Russian string-playing flair. They played very little Russian music and if one had to pick one composer to represent them at their best, it would be Mozart. They found the normally confident Goodman very humble in his approach to playing the classics. He even offered to audition for them but no sooner had they held an impromptu rehearsal session in the Great Northern Hotel, than they decided to go ahead with the recording. Later Goodman was to regret that the five of them did not perform the Quintet in public before setting it down on shellac. 'I thought that chamber music could be tossed off pretty nearly as easily as a good jam session,' he recalled. He did not appreciate 'that the astonishingly high standards of the Budapest Quartet came from everlasting, painstaking attention to detail through every rehearsal and performance of every work in their repertoire'. RCA Victor's eccentric classical supremo Charles O'Connell, who considered chamber music aficionados 'bloodless snobs' – an attitude that was soon to lose him not only the Budapest but the Busch Quartet as well – made things particularly difficult for Goodman by electing to record the first three movements of the Quintet on ten-inch discs. It meant chopping up the work into eight segments rather than six; and as every 'take' had to be repeated at least once for safety's sake, the players endured sixteen takes instead of twelve.
The resulting performance got off to a bad start with connoisseurs on both sides of the Atlantic. While Americans struggled with three ten-inch discs and one twelve-inch, British listeners heard the first three movements on muffled-sounding second-generation dubbings – engineers at Abbey Road had transferred the six ten-inch masters on to four twelve-inch sides. Even John Hammond, the midwife of the recording, did not regard it highly. But the record-buying public loved it. And hearing it again, in joined-up form, its virtues become more apparent than its failings. The English clarinettist Reginald Kell, later to become Benny Goodman's mentor in classical music, certainly took a more relaxed approach in his recording with the Philharmonia Quartet. But Goodman's more extrovert, striding, outdoor style has its own refreshing rewards; and the string playing is lovely. As the performance has received only one LP transfer and two shortlived CD reissues (one of them compromised by using the dubbed British masters), its reappearance will be welcomed by both Goodman and Budapest fans. Goodman went on to perform the Mozart Quintet in public with the Budapest three times; and the idea of his recording the Brahms Quintet with them was mooted. But O'Connell showed so little interest in the Budapest that they gladly accepted Hammond's suggestion of Columbia as a more congenial record label. In September 1940, now United States residents and holding down the plum residency at the Library of Congress, they made their first records for Columbia; and they remained with that company for the next quarter of a century, until their disbandment.
By the time of the other two recordings on this disc, a great deal had happened to the Budapest, not all of it pleasant. On the one hand, they were established as the leading string quartet in America. On the debit side, in 1944 they had lost their outstanding personality and finest musician, Alexander Schneider; and things were not working out with his successor as second violinist, Edgar Ortenberg. The other three members, Joseph Roisman, Boris Kroyt and Mischa Schneider, were not easy to work with, and Ortenberg never really settled in. The situation was particularly bad in the recording studio – a number of projects attempted with Ortenberg had to be remade later and at least one, the little Schubert E flat Quartet, never did get a satisfactory Budapest recording. It was quite a boon for the senior threesome to be able to work on their own, in Mozart's two sublime Piano Quartets, and to have an ideal colleague in the 49-year-old George Szell. This archetypal Central European musician, born in Hungary of Czech parents but brought up and schooled in Vienna, was already a conductor of almost three decades' experience; but he had begun his career as a prodigy in both composition – Adolf Busch was only one of the great musicians who performed his precocious Piano Quintet – and piano playing. He was a pupil of the Viennese piano pedagogue Richard Robert, who also taught Rudolf Serkin, Hans Gál and Clara Haskil, and he never allowed his piano skills to lapse even when he became a full-time conductor. Szell's aristocratic touch at the piano was first heard in conjunction with the Budapest at the Library of Congress in April 1945, in Dvořák's Piano Quintet; in October of that year he performed the Brahms Quintet with them; and in May 1946 he joined members of the group in Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet and Beethoven's 'Kakadu' Variations for trio (the Library holds in-house recordings of all four interpretations). So when he met with them in August 1946 to record the Mozart Quartets, the partnership was already well worn in. Szell's beautifully tooled playing offset the Budapest's gorgeous string playing to perfection, with Boris Kroyt's lovely tone on Mozart's favourite viola coming through the texture marvellously. There was only one surprising thing about these performances, in fact – the studio. The Budapest usually recorded at Liederkranz Hall in New York, and a Columbia reissue of these performances credited the sessions to that venue, but Mischa Schneider, in conversation with the quartet's discographer Philip Hart, was insistent that the sessions with Szell - their only commercial recordings with him - had taken place in Hollywood.
The two Piano Quartets were originally recorded by American Columbia on 33 1/3 rpm lacquer master discs, from which 78 rpm matrices were dubbed. Because the lacquers featured a wider frequency range and (generally) quieter surfaces than the 78 metal parts, they were used as the basis for Columbia's LP transfers, which have in turn been used as the source for this reissue. Some surface noise deriving from the original lacquers (not the commercial LP sources used) remains; however, on the whole, I found the results of using the LPs in this case preferable to the much noisier late-1940s shellac 78s as a source. These were, incidentally, the first recordings Szell made in the United States, just before he assumed the directorship of the Cleveland Orchestra.
The Clarinet Quintet was transferred from first-edition pre-war Victor "Gold" pressings. The original album contained three ten-inch discs for the first three movements followed by a twelve-inch disc for the last movement (which accounts for the rarity of finding a copy today with an unbroken final disc). For its UK issue, HMV dubbed the six ten-inch sides down to four twelve-inch matrices (joining some sides in the process and causing other side breaks), and issued the set on three twelve-inch discs. When EMI reissued this set on a CD in their Références series several years ago, they apparently used the sonically-compromised dubbed sides for transfer. Here, it has been restored from original undubbed pressings.
In light of the recent proliferation of "crossover" Classical releases, it is almost quaint to read the apologia Victor offered in their original booklet for combining the celebrated quartet with "the King of Swing":
There may be some curiosity as to the musical association of Mr. Benny Goodman, clarinet, whose fame in the minds of the general public rests definitely in fields far removed from chamber music, with so austere a group as the Budapest String Quartet; but there can not be, for anyone who listens to a few bars of this recorded performance, the slightest question of Mr. Goodman's eligibility … This recording is not, in any sense, a "stunt," and was not for a moment so considered by the artists or anyone else connected with it … [I]t was recorded as an effort to add to the library of Victor records a valid masterpiece, done in the best possible way by the best obtainable artists. It represents, therefore, no deviation from Victor policy.
MOZART: Quartet No. 1 in G minor for Piano and Strings, K. 478
Recorded 18 August 1946 in Hollywood
Matrix nos.: XCO 36780 through 36785
First issued on Columbia 72624-D through 72626-D in album M-773
MOZART: Quartet No. 2 in E flat major for Piano and Strings, K. 493
Recorded 20 August 1946 in Hollywood
Matrix nos.: XCO 36786 through 36791
First issued on Columbia 71930-D through 71932-D in album M-669
MOZART: Quintet in A major for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581
Recorded 25 April 1938 in New York City
Matrix nos.: BS 022904-2, 022905-2, 022902-2, 022903-1, 022906-1, 022907-1 and CS 022908-2 and 022909-1
First issued on Victor 1884 through 1886 and 14921 in album M-452
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MOZART: Piano Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / Clarinet Qui...