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CHOPIN Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2 (chamber versions) Shiraga / Yggdrasil Quartet BIS CD-847; The Chopin Piano Concertos in camera. It's a first but it shouldn't be a last. The orchestral parts have always been at best incidental (did Chopin even write them?): bland, clotted tuttis, boring unisons, endless doublings. The concerto gigs that orchestral musicians love to hate. So what are these "chamber" versions? Simply put - solo piano with string quintet (added double-bass). They may have been the by-product of Chopin's early rehearsals: an attempt on his part to acquaint his string section leaders with the works. They may have originated with Chopin's German publisher, eager to make the most of practical demand: ie Chopin for home performance. At any rate, the history is long and complicated and largely speculative.

No matter. Suffice it to say that someone should sanction or endorse these versions (or whatever the term is) and get them published, post- haste. Promote them, spread the word. I haven't enjoyed the concertos so much in ages. Weren't they always concertos for solo piano? Weren't they always, in essence, private fantasies awkwardly indulged in public? At any rate, here they are, or rather here he is - the mysterious, romantic poet - returned to the intimacy of the salon in the person of Fumiko Shiraga. Piano with obbligato solo strings. And so the exquisite second subject of the First Concerto is a moment of real solitude, withdrawn, contemplative, the solo strings listening in silence before offering their support - a single chord from which the cello warmly volunteers a response.

But it's so discreet. The slow movements here become solo piano nocturnes, the finales solo mazurkas or polonaises unencumbered by the dead weight of a redundant symphony orchestra. Shiraga exhibits a nice airy turn of phrase, her way with embellishments is graceful and knowing without ever quite achieving that ethereal, transported, made-in-the-moment feeling that can take these pieces somewhere else. The spirit of ecstasy is in those embellishments.

The principal subject of the second concerto's larghetto (exquisitely pained as only Chopin knew how) takes its shape, its inspiration, from the extravagant roulade that bears it upwards. One cannot help but imagine an Uchida or a Perahia in such moments. Still, a fascinating exercise, one which we can only hope might become common practice.

Edward Seckerson MOZART

Requiem, K626; Kyrie K341

La Chappelle Royal, Collegium Vocale, Orchestre des Champs Elysees / Philippe Herreweghe

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901620

How much of Mozart's Requiem is genuine Mozart? After the composer's death in 1791, his pupil Sussmayr was given the task of plugging the gaps in the unfinished manuscript. Some modern scholars have argued that he wasn't equal to the task, and yes, there are clumsy touches here and there; and yet his completion still has the power to stir audiences and subdue critics. And after all, Sussmayr was an "authentic" contemporary of Mozart, who knew the master's style, and must have had at least some grasp of his intentions. Unlike several other period-style specialists, Philippe Herreweghe has decided to stick with Sussmayr and the result is, quite simply, the most exhilarating and uplifting version of Mozart's last work to appear in years.

Granted, exhilarating may seem an odd word to use in connection with a work that is generally held to be possessed by the terror of death. And, certainly, there are moments in this performance when the sense of dread is real enough: the grim Dies Irae, the anguished Lacrimosa, the chillingly bare final cadence. But one is just as likely to be struck by the sheer vitality of the writing. Mozart may have been on his death- bed, but compositionally he was at the apex of his powers. This comes across with equal force in the choral and the solo numbers - a rosette to Herreweghe and Harmonia Mundi for finding a near-perfect solo team. The recording is lucidity itself and, while the Requiem would have been enough in itself, the D minor Kyrie (probably a much later work than its Kochel number suggests) makes an ideal complement. If you want a fresh, gripping modern view of the greatest of all requiems, look no further.

Stephen Johnson BRAHMS

Symphonies Nos 1-4; Tragic Overture; Academic Festival Overture; Haydn Variations; Alto Rhapsody*

*Dunja Vejzovic (alto), *Houston Symphony Male Chorus, Houston Symphony / Eschenbach

Virgin 7243 5 61360 2; four CDs

Recorded 1991-1993

First, to clarify the "reissue" context. Two of these extremely cheap CDs - the ones containing the First and Third Symphonies, plus their musically distinctive fill-ups - have been issued before. The rest is new to the catalogue. And to be honest, my expectations weren't especially optimistic: another Brahms cycle, I thought, and with a less-than top-rate orchestra? Who needs it? So, late one night I decided to sample the Tragic Overture, mainly for sound quality.

The upshot of this "experiment" was a starlit listening vigil and rapturous involvement in some of the most sensitive, expressive and insightful Brahms conducting I've heard in a long time. Eschenbach's tempos are mostly slow; he takes every prescribed first-movement repeat, attends lovingly to subsidiary voices, coaxes warm-textured string sonorities and knows precisely where to turn up the heat. The opening of the First Symphony sounds more "organ- like" than on most modern rivals (audible bassoons darken the texture), while the first movement of the Third recalls Furtwangler's brand of exultation. The Second is especially responsive to Eschenbach's lyrical manner, the Fourth to his sense of structure and, if rubato is occasionally a mite indulgent (say, in the First's opening movement), everything has a clear purpose. The Houston Symphony Orchestra plays like an augmented chamber orchestra and the full-bodied recordings are sensitively balanced.

Robert Cowan BARTOK

String Quartets Nos 1-6

Vegh Quartet

Auvidis V4809; three CDs

Recorded 1972

Bartk the innovator was never very far from Bartk the folk-music collector, and the Vegh's second recording of the string quartets honours both. It's the flavour of these performances that wins you over, the way Vegh and his colleagues move from one episode to the next, lyrically in the first two quartets, forcefully in the Fourth and in the Fifth, with the sort of improvisatory ease that we normally associate only with top-ranking jazz musicians. The concise Third Quartet shows the group's remarkable powers of concentration: so much is conveyed in such a short time-span, and yet the closing bars relate an uncanny sense of having spanned an entire universe. No other recording makes such devastating music of the coda's dive-bombing cello glissandos and, when it comes to the Sixth Quartet, with its unsettling contrasts between bluff humour and an almost insufferable sadness, the Vegh's pooled experience - both of music and of life itself - pays especially high dividends.

Some might quibble that what should have been a two-CD "slimline" pack is a three-CD box (tot up the timings and you'll see what I mean) but, with magnificent repertoire, superb performances and remarkably fine sound, this set remains among the most enduring monuments of recorded chamber music.

Robert Cowan

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