As the rest of the classical music world continues to wallow in its problems, those of finding audiences and finding money, chamber music seems more viable than ever--for at least two obvious reasons: It's relatively inexpensive to produce, and there is an inexhaustible supply of talented young artists willing to try their hands at a form of music-making that is neither as demanding nor chancy as pursuing a solo career or as anonymous as membership in an orchestra.
As some of the old chamber-music guard wanes and inevitably leaves the scene, the newcomers proliferate and are recorded, with the guessing as to who will still be around in a decade as widespread as the new recordings.
The future of the Artis Quartet would seem to be assured. The playing of these four young Viennese--all are in their early 30s--on several Sony releases over the past three years has been consistently admirable. Their latest effort, however, a pairing (on Sony 53282) of Dvorak's sublime last quartet, in A-flat, Opus 105, and Smetana's "From My Life," is the stuff of greatness.
There is nothing even faintly Vienna-cute about their playing: no overemphasis on sweetness of tone, no coy little decorative (as distinct from organic) portamentos. Rather, we are given playing that is big and bold in sound, at once songfully expressive, sensitively shaded and rhythmically propulsive. Just what these folk-inspired Czech masterpieces require and deserve.
Two likewise extravagantly gifted, young but already experienced ensembles offer new recordings: Berlin's Vogler Quartet, and from Salzburg the three siblings and a friend who make up the Hagen Quartet.
Of the two, the Vogler, whose members seem never even to have to overcome a technical problem--which may, ironically, be their main problem--are for the most part too fast, too furious, too unwilling to explore the shadows and nuances of Debussy's Quartet.
If the Vogler Debussy is hit and miss, the remainder of their imaginatively constructed program (RCA Victor 61816) represents their best recorded work to date.
The players balance the extreme agitation of Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata" Quartet (after the Tolstoy story which inspired it) with its moments of dark, but still edgy, introspection while bringing welcome energy and contrast to the seemingly enervated, in less perceptive hands, pages of Shostakovich's 11th Quartet.
The Hagens likewise offer the Debussy, this time with its usual discmate, the Ravel Quartet, and a third work, the roughly contemporaneous but ever-so-different 1905 Quartet of Anton Webern (Deutsche Grammophon 437 836).
Aside from the Webern, which is given a fittingly ripe, delirious reading, this is not one of the Hagens' more imposing outings. Both French works are short on atmosphere, with the group's usually tight ensemble and lithe energy inconsistently on display.
Some even trickier repertory, the maligned piano trios of Robert Schumann, are accorded grandly convincing interpretations by the members of the Copenhagen Trio, who are in their late-20s: pianist Morten Mogensen, violinist Soren Elbaek and cellist Svane Hermansen (Kontrapunkt 321767/8, two CDs).
While the first trio, in D minor, has its champions--and fairly strong recorded representation--the other two approach obscurity. In the case of the exceedingly disheveled No. 3, that is largely merited. All No. 2 needs, however, is performers like the Copenhagen Trio, who appreciate its fine-spun lyricism and possess the smarts to allow that quality to take precedence over its less viable aspects.
What is of value in the other two trios is nonetheless apparent in the fluent, warm-toned but never miniaturizing approach of these young Danes.
Similarly accomplished are the two sets of character pieces, the Opus 88 "Fantasiestucke" and the blissful "Marchenerzahlungen," Opus 132, the latter with pianist Mogensen joined by violist Tim Frederiksen and clarinetist Ron-Chen Zion to round out a set that is as lustrously recorded as it is performed (Kontrapunkt 32167/8).