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Good Tidings for Fans of String Quartets

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

By not being ubiquitous in the recording studios, by not feeling obliged to churn out every component of the so-called standard repertory, the Alban Berg Quartet of Vienna manages to create a sense of anticipation and occasion with each new release.

And while the ensemble’s latest offering does fit into the standard, even hackneyed, category--a coupling of Dvorak’s “American” Quartet and Smetana’s “From My Life” (EMI Classics 54215)--the interpretations are unusual in that they have been recorded live, in the Vienna Konzerthaus, with a pleasantly edgy presence and without obvious studio prettification.

Here as in their studio-made performances, the Berg players continue to provide the mingled pleasures of extraordinary accuracy, rhythmic intensity and dynamic subtlety.

Not that slight blemishes can’t be performance-enhancing, as witness Hungary’s excellent Kodaly Quartet playing the Piano Quintets of Schumann and Brahms, with pianist Jeno Jando a perfectly integrated fifth member (Naxos 8.550406).

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The occasional, slight intonational lapse or ensemble imbalance seems merely to indicate a desire not to fuss with spontaneous-sounding interpretations as thoughtful as they are lively: emotionally expansive--the players know when a bit of crooning is in order--without falling into sentimental excess; taut when needed, as in their incendiary reading of Brahms’ scherzo. And at under $6 for the disc. . . . Enough said.

In its recent U.S. debut appearance on the Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, Switzerland’s Sine Nomine Quartet proved to be an exciting find.

In its first recording to be made available in this country (Cascavelle 1018), the no-name ensemble is equally impressive.

The exquisitely jaunty, little-known Dvorak String Quintet in G, with double bass (which explains its neglect), the part played here by Vincent Pasquier, and the familiar Opus 81 Piano Quintet, with Philippe Dinkel the fiery pianist, show the ensemble’s welcome combination of drive, immaculate balances and an unexaggeratedly warm ensemble tone with particularly sensitive employment of vibrato--as an expressive device rather than as a meaningless fillip.

Also from Switzerland comes the fresh-faced Carmina Quartet, whose debut on the Denon label (6527) presents the two string quartets, dating from 1917 and 1929, of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, one of those elusive fringe figures periodically “discovered” only to sink into oblivion again for want of influential advocates loyal beyond the short haul.

Nothing is understated in these voluptuous, agonizedly chromatic scores--music as mystically self-indulgent as Scriabin’s but with more rhythmic life. Both quartets abound in exciting harmonic ideas, and both are vibrantly executed, with lush, glowing ensemble tone, by the Carmina, to whom American impresarios must surely be listening.

The program also includes music that may aspire to a comparable over-the-top emotionalism but winds up being merely pretty: the early (1905), uncharacteristically florid slow movement for string quartet by Anton Webern.

It was a good idea to combine (on EMI Classics 54346) early works of Vaughan Williams, the Quartet in G minor and “On Wenlock Edge,” and his settings for strings, piano and tenor soloist of poems bE. Housman, with Ravel’s Quartet in F.

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Ravel, with whom Williams briefly studied orchestration, in turn became an avid promoter of VW’s works on the Continent, personally taking the piano part at the French premiere of “Wenlock” in 1912.

The performances by England’s youthful, highly touted Britten Quartet are a mixed bag, the Ravel sounding tentative in the rockily intoned opening measures, alternatingly rushed and sluggish in the slow movement.

The pleasantly meandering Vaughan Williams Quartet and the superbly theatrical “Wenlock” are unexceptionably played, but the latter’s dramatic outbursts strain Philip Langridge’s tenor to near-breaking.

A superior CD version of “On Wenlock Edge"--also on EMI--with Ian Partridge the tenor soloist there, as well as in Peter Warlock’s equally affecting Yeats setting “The Curlew,” seems to have vanished from the catalogue. Pity.

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