CLASSICAL: Records of the Week

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SCHUBERT

Impromptus Op 90 & Op 142

Mitsuko Uchida

Philips 456 245-2

Softly, darkly, in the wake of restless arpeggios, the wonderful theme of Impromptu No 3 in G flat from the Op 90 group sounds like it's bound for eternity. Listen late, or better yet in the small hours. Because Mitsuko Uchida throws a nocturnal light on these heavenly pieces. They are, in truth, precisely as described: "impromptus", inventions of the moment. Who knows where the next phrase, the next bar, will take you.

Uchida doesn't so much play as feel her way through Schubert's many revelations, great and small. And revelation, discovery, a sense of journeying (winter journeys, mind) is what this music is all about. Who but Schubert conveys such promise, uplift, and enlightenment in his modulations? Modulation - the musical equivalent of the filmic dissolve - is at the heart of his music, and Uchida, with her extraordinary concentration and finesse (for touch read caress), opens to each and every one - a new prospect, a different glow.

Her ways are intensely personal, but, like all great musicians, she knows the music's purpose. She understands the character, the wistful charm of No 3 in B flat Op 142: a "salon" theme with aspirations; No 2 in A flat Op 142 is a prayer without sanctimony; and No 4 in F minor Op 142 is a national dance spinning off into the realms of the fantastic - the brilliance of the improvisation sounding as much Uchida's as Schubert's. And that, above all, is what makes the record special.

The sound of Uchida's own Steinway, recorded here in the rich and welcoming acoustic of the Musikverein, Vienna, is the kind of sound that Schubert can only have dreamt about - and dreams are such stuff as impromptus are made on... Edward Seckerson

There's a popular image of the later Brahms. The music is seen as autumnal, resigned, a touch ponderous perhaps - certainly rarely inclined to move very fast. The opening of the Second String Quintet shatters all that. It's joyous, impassioned - youthful in spirit. Or it should be; somehow most performances fall short of the energy that seems to explode from the printed page. Not with the Hagen Quartet and Gerard Causse, though: in their new version the music surges and soars; melodies pour forth in liquid profusion. The wild, Schumann-intoxicated romantic that was the young Brahms (in the days before the patriarchal beard) is momentarily reborn.

At the same time, the mature Brahms's control and balance is here, too. This is wonderful chamber-playing: five musicians playing as one, without sacrificing their separate identities.

That applies equally to the First Quintet, although here you might be forgiven for thinking that this was the old Brahms at last: mellower, more comfortable, the lyricism possibly less spontaneous, but riper.

The Hagens and Causse sound just as much at home in this music as they did in Op 111 - in fact it's hard to think of another CD coupling that shows such respect for the divergent characters of these two works.

The recording quality matches that of the performances: intimate without being oppressively close, with clarity and warmth. A top recommendation for both these works, and a first-rate introduction to Brahms's chamber music. Stephen Johnson

BRAHMS

String Quintets No 1 Op 88, No 2 Op 111

Hagen Quartet

Gerard Causse (viola)

DG 453 420-2

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