MUSIC REVIEW : Latin Quartet Opens Series at Barclay : The chamber group produces mixed results when it performs standard literature Tuesday.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Cuarteto Latinoamericano first played in Orange County in January, 1992, its performance of relatively unfamiliar works by Latin American and Spanish composers was exemplary, but one wondered how well the four musicians from Mexico City would fare in more standard literature.

The question got a mixed answer Tuesday when the quartet opened the third annual chamber music series sponsored jointly by the Laguna Chamber Music Society and the Orange County Philharmonic Society at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

Along with works by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla, Silvestre Revueltas and Javier Alvarez, brothers Saul and Aron Bitran (violins) and Alvaro Bitran (cello) and violist Javier Montiel played the Quartet in D by Tchaikovsky--who turned out to be not the belovedly brooding, tortured, Slavic Tchaikovsky, but someone quite different.

The interpretation captured the composer as a shy and reticent adolescent, formally capable and coherent and guided as much by brain as by heart (actually, Tchaikovsky wrote the work when he was 30). Mozart was Tchaikovsky's favorite composer, but rarely has Tchaikovsky's own music sounded so comparatively crystalline, balanced and pure.

Interesting, but different.

And yet . . .

Saul Bitran played the famous Andante Cantabile with such tender hesitancy that the folk-song roots of the melody evolved into a statement of hurtful intimacy. The pianissimo passages near the end emerged from all four musicians with humbling intensity.

Here as elsewhere in the program, the quartet revealed its customarily breathtaking ensemble.

Piazzolla's "Four for Tango" may have left some worried that the screechy glissandos were hurting the players' fingers. But they made the cinematic mood shifts and compacted rhythms of Villa-Lobos' Quartet No. 5 and Revueltas "Musica de Feria" convey a persuasive logic, and Alvarez's short "Metro Chabacano," a kind of minimalist study, prove essentially compelling.

For an encore, the quartet played a set of variations on Paganini's apparently endlessly inspiring 24th Caprice, composed by violist Montiel.

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