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TRIO OF NOTED QUARTETS ISSUE NEW RELEASES

There are by the accepted reckoning three superquartets on the scene these days, the most senior--although with numerous personnel changes over the years--being the Juilliard Quartet. The unchanging Guarneri Quartet is second in terms of longevity, while the Alban Berg Quartet of Vienna, in existence for 15 years, with its first non-founding members having joined only two years ago, is youngest both in collective age and number of years spent together.

Only the Berg Quartet makes a major showing among new releases by all three groups, with a set devoted to the seven late quartets, Opus 127 through Opus 135, of Beethoven (Angel DC-3973).

As in two previously released volumes of Beethoven, the Berg ensemble displays an interpretive stance compounded of fleetness, rhythmic acuity and dynamism. Its playing is unsentimental yet embraces both pathos and high drama. In sum, a winning combination of intellect, muscle and heart.

With this admirable release the Berg becomes the first ensemble to have its Beethoven quartet cycle preserved on compact disc as well as cassette and standard vinyl disc.

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The Juilliard Quartet likewise devotes itself to a large-scale enterprise, the six quartets of Mozart dedicated to Josef Haydn: K. 387 through K. 465 (CBS M3 37856). The results are, however, hardly gratifying, the sublime melodies being hurled at us with unbecoming vehemence and haste, and with little regard for niceties of tone and balance.

The Guarneri Quartet tackles less grandiose material: the Quartet in E minor of Verdi--a slight, rather bland piece that cannot often have been treated to such prodigies of tone and technique as are lavished on it here--and the marginally more substantial Quartet in D, Opus 11, of Tchaikovsky (RCA ARL1-5419), equally graceful in execution if somewhat lacking in energy.

One can’t help voicing regret over RCA’s continuing failure to record the Guarneri Quartet in the major works it has never recorded, or standards that deserve to be re-recorded with the benefit of the latest technology and the players’ mature point of view.

A dozen years ago few followers of the chamber music scene doubted the likelihood of the youthful Cleveland Quartet’s eventual admission to the ranks of the exalted ensembles. Only a little mellowing was needed and a few mechanical wrinkles remained to be ironed out.

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But in the ensuing years the Cleveland’s playing remained interpretively unsettled and often marred by coarseness of tone.

Perhaps the presence of a guest, the preternaturally mature Yo-Yo Ma as second cellist, has had a soothing effect on the Cleveland’s interpretation of Schubert’s incomparable Quintet in C (CBS IM 39134).

For, while a good deal of the old intensity remains, the once omnipresent overaggressiveness is blessedly absent. Ensemble tone is compact and consistent; balances--which in the past had been skewed in the direction of the first violin by the harshness of Donald Weilerstein’s playing--are in commendable order here. Most important, there is sufficient broadness and serenity to offset, indeed to complement, the passion.

Ma’s presence certainly doesn’t hurt, but the success of the Schubert Quintet is not predicated on the contribution of the second cellist. This is a collaborative effort--a grandly scaled, profound and richly communicative rendering of one of the pillars of the repertory.

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Some of the most interesting chamber music being recorded these days can be found on a pair of small Los Angeles-based labels, Laurel and GSC, guided by the enterprising Herschel Burke Gilbert.

Gilbert does not concern himself with standard repertory or stellar performers. Worthwhile neglected material is his passion, e.g., the tersely powerful Second Piano Quintet of Ernest Bloch, written in 1957 and only now receiving its first recorded performance.

It is coupled (on Laurel LR-128) with another recording premiere, the Second String Quartet of young American composer Fred Lerdahl: an attractively virtuosic, expertly constructed compendium of 20th-Century chamber music devices that quartets in search of fresh native repertory would do well to explore.

Both works are in the expert, devoted hands of the latest ensemble to bear the distinguished name of Pro Arte Quartet, this most recent incarnation being in residence at the University of Wisconsin. The piano in the Bloch work, whose role is subservient to that of the strings, is capably handled by Howard Karp.

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The sole concern of the GSC label is the once-widely circulated and influential chamber music of Paul Hindemith.

Hindemith’s String Quartets, Opus 22 (1921) and Opus 32 (1922), paired on GSC-10, are the very essence of the composer’s tough anti-Romantic style of the period. Opus 22 in particular remains a bracingly energetic, clear-eyed work whose pungent rhythms are skillfully projected here by the Los Angeles String Quartet.


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