It was a long time coming, but well worth the wait. The Budapest String Quartet has long been one of my favorite ensembles, particularly in Beethoven. Their early ‘40s recordings of select LvB string quartets on Columbia (on Sony Masterworks Heritage) are in many ways my preferred versions. The unity of purpose, the intensity, the flawless playing: ‘tis sublime. The two Bridge sets of the middle and late quartets are pretty much as good, and when combined with the Columbia recordings provided me with an almost complete overview of this Russian ensemble’s take on the Bonn master’s sublime quartets. But surely I needed to hear all of the quartets from them, and preferably in the mono incarnation rather than the past-their-prime stereo incarnation. Bless United Archives (United archives), for they have done fans of the Budapest Quartet and Beethoven a great service by reissuing the mono cycle from 1951-52. Almost across the board, this is what I’ve always wanted in this music. The Op 18 quartets are perhaps a bit heavy at times, though they never sound too slow, and sometimes the Harp may sound too thick (at least when compared to the Bridge recording), but minor quibbles aside, there is much to admire. The Op 59/1 is exciting and executed with brilliance from start to finish, and the playing left me listening intently to each note. Given that this is possibly my least favorite LvB quartet, that’s something. (I still like it a lot, mind you, it’s just that I’d rather listen to other quartets.)

But it is surely the late quartets where the Budapest shine brightest. All of the works from 127 on are of the highest order, but within this august group, the 130, 132, and 135 occupy a special place. The 130 is about as good as it gets in my experience. Everything is just about perfect. The group’s demeanor is simultaneously serious enough to convey the depth of the music yet light enough not to make it bend under its own weight. The Adagio ma non troppo opening ideally evokes late-LvB transcendence; the Cavatina offers probing, moving playing without being too emotional; and the revised finale is joyful and spirited. But the Alla danza tedesca is surely what sets the Budapest apart from other elite ensembles. It sounds so, well, right. The tempo isn’t pushed, yet the rhythmic aspect remains in tact. There’s a sort of corporate swagger to the playing that permeates much of the cycle. I love it. As good, the 132 has at its heart the great slow movement that is here delivered with profundity. The music becomes almost static at times, and the Budapest create a transportive sound. The 135 seems to have been something of a specialty of the Budapest, because all three versions I have by them are of the highest order. Whether romping through the second movement, or plumbing the depths in the third movement, they are in top form and nail the work. One gets both the backward looking Beethoven, with the conventional four movement structure, and the profound late LvB with contemplative and searching playing. Amazing stuff.

Inevitably, one is compelled to compare these recordings to the other extant Budapest recordings. I’d say that I still favor the early-40s stuff with Alexander Schneider as the second violin just a bit more. It’s tighter and swifter and more focused. The Bridge recordings offer the ensemble live before an audience, and that seems to bring out just a smidgeon more energy at times, though not too often. That may be due to the fact that, according to the notes, many of these recordings were made in a single day, so there is a sense of energy and “liveness,” if you will, that some studio recordings lack. When the comparisons broaden to include other ensembles, the Budapest seem even better. The stereo set from the Vegh Quartet aside, I cannot think of any later recordings that are of the same overall quality. Tastes vary, and people have their own favorites – the Italiano, say, or the Juilliard, or most recently the Takacs – but for me, the Budapest has rarely been matched, and never surpassed.

But wait: there’s more! United Archives has also reissued the Budapest Quartet’s 1954 recording of Haydn’s Op 76 quartets! And the Budapest do superb here, too. The first quartet is excellent, the second, too, but the Emperor quartet starts off a bit thick and heavy, as if to add extra drama to the music. It’s all well done, even if I prefer some others here. But come the Sunrise quartet, and the Budapest are in top form. They play with vigor and swagger again, and the whole thing is thrilling. The last two quartets are as good, bringing a somewhat mixed (ie, excellent and great) set to a most satisfying conclusion. There are some other superb recordings of these works that I like more (the Tatrai and the Mosaiques, to name two), but the Budapest fare rather well.

A few words on sound. Overall, the transfers are very well done. The sound for the Haydn set is better overall – it’s cleaner and fuller and more detailed – but even in the LvB set it’s excellent. It sounds like tapes were used at least most of the time. A few times in a few quartets there is some spurious noise, but that could be due to the age of the tape. As to resolution, well, a few times one can hear extra noises in the recordings themselves, like a door being shut in one place. When compared to the most recent Sony remastering of the Budapest’s Mozart, these remasters have a slightly fuller, more robust, more colorful sound as opposed to Sony’s drier, more detailed sound. I’ll take either one, but admit to slightly preferring the results here.

Overall, these are most welcomed reissues. I certainly hope this new upstart company reissues more goodies on par with these!