With the first installments of a projected Beethoven quartet cycle from Santa Monica-based Delos Records, the Orford String Quartet of Canada presents convincing evidence of its right to be included among the world's chamber music elite.

Released to date--and, helpfully, on three individual compact discs, rather than the usual all-or-nothing set--are the five middle-period quartets and one early work. The couplings are: Opus 59, No. 1 and Opus 18, No. 5 (3033); Opus 59, No. 2 and Opus 95 (3034); Opus 59, No. 3 and Opus 74 (3035).

These are big-toned, richly expressive interpretations, which constitute a viable and perhaps more readily appealing alternative to the fleet, lean-toned manner of the Alban Berg Quartet, whose widely admired cycle is on the Angel label.

Brahms at his most lyrically expansive can be found in the B-flat String Sextet, Opus 18, in a noble reading by members of the excellent French ensemble called, simply, Les Musiciens (Harmonia Mundi 901073, CD).

This recording, well received in its LP release five years ago, is now made even more attractive by virtue of HM's superior CD pressing and the inclusion--although neither the front cover nor spine of the package carries the information--of another substantial work by Brahms, the C-minor Piano Trio, Opus 101, lovingly projected by a smaller contingent from Les Musiciens.

Robert Schumann's two Sonatas for violin and piano, both in minor keys, date from the end of his productive life. They are hardly models of thematic organization and, in their refusal to explore the violin's upper register, curiously muted in their lyricism. Whatever positive qualities these works possess is obscured by the pushy, impatient playing of violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Martha Argerich (Deutsche Grammophon 419 235, LP or CD). They are unable to relax even in the lullaby-like slow movement of the Second Sonata, marked "Leise, einfach" (softly, simply). It is neither, and much too fast, in their hands.

The same Schumann sonatas emerge in a more favorable light as reflectively played by violinist Raphael Oleg (a prize winner in the 1986 Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition) and pianist Yves Rault (Harmonia Mundi 90489, CD). These young Frenchmen constitute a balanced, polished ensemble and they have clearly given a good deal of thought--not merely fleet fingers--to this problematic music.

Chamber music of Debussy is contained on a gorgeous-sounding Chandos compact disc (8385): the three sonatas--for violin and piano, cello and piano, and for flute, viola and harp--"Syrinx" for solo flute, the Rhapsody and "Petite Piece" for clarinet. Sophisticated, alert readings by members of London's Athena Ensemble, who properly view Debussy from a 20th-Century perspective--except in the Violin Sonata, where Hugh Maguire's "expressive" slides and slow vibrato are intrusive relics of another era.

It's a long jump from the spare, compact Debussy sonatas to the 45-minute-long "Quartet for the End of Time," written in 1940 by Olivier Messiaen. The less palatable elements of the French composer's orgiastic mysticism are not as yet evident at this date. The discursiveness, however, is.

Clarinetist David Shifrin and three of his colleagues of Chamber Music Northwest--violinist Ik-Hwan Bae, cellist Warren Lash, pianist William Doppmann--fail to minimize the Messiaenic longueurs, but the wide-ranging skills of Shifrin (it is the clarinetist's show), provoke unqualified admiration. Still, the genuine value of the record (Delos 3043, CD) resides in the companion piece, Bartok's 1938 "Contrasts."

In the hands of the superbly gifted Messrs. Shifrin, Bae and Doppmann this is hardly the squeaky, scratchy music projected by Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti in their oft-reissued "classic" recording. (Bartok himself is the pianist.) It is, rather, rich, sardonic and exotic stuff, in which the composer gave the clarinetist and violinist some wonderfully piquant material and treated their instruments with respect.

You don't have to admire Shostakovich's 1940 Piano Quintet to respond positively to its treatment by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet, who attack the score with such intensity and massive authority that its blatancies are greatly diminished (Angel 47507, CD). One may be listening more to the performers than to Shostakovich, but there are far less rewarding ways of passing time.

Angel's generous Shostakovich program also includes the Seventh and Eighth String Quartets, both dating from 1960. The former is a pungent, highly concentrated, sometimes elegiac piece of great dramatic power, while the latter shows the composer at his most masochistically glum, except in the raging scherzo.

The Borodin Quartet--who, according to a reliable source, will present the entire cycle of 15 Shostakovich quartets at Ambassador Auditorium next season--plays both pieces with their patented combination of lush sonority, rhythmic acuity and emotional involvement, leaving no corner of the scores unexplored or unilluminated. It is, simply, their music.

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