RECORDS / Double Play: Perfection with a few rough edges: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on intimate Beethoven and Schubert

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BEETHOVEN: String quartets,

Vol 1

Alban Berg Quartet

(EMI CDS 7 54587-2 - four CDs)

CRITICAL reactions to the Alban Berg Quartet in this country usually come with a caveat: they're 'perfectionists'. Well, if concern for beauty of tone or polished ensemble had got in the way of intellectual penetration or humane empathy I could understand, but I don't see how anyone could reach that conclusion after hearing the Bergs search out the heart of the Adagio of Beethoven's Op 59 no 1 string quartet, or the Cavatina from Op 130.

If this playing is beautiful, it is the kind of beauty that stirs rather than impresses from a distance. And in movements like the C minor Allegro of Op 18 no 4 and Op 59 no 1's resurgent finale there's grittiness as well as muscular vitality - not all the edges are smoothed down. In fact, the polish cracks a little in places, especially in the Presto of Op 131, where I feel that the quartet's leader Gunter Pichler pushes his soaring lines too hard; otherwise it's almost a relief to hear intonation or rhythmic togetherness slip a degree or two.

The insight isn't evenly spread - how could it be in a closely packed concert cycle? (The recordings were made live during a series of performances in Vienna.) I thought that Op 127, for instance, sank just below boiling point after the wonderful, concentrated playing of the Adagio. On the whole, though, this supposedly difficult music reveals itself very directly, without a hint of forcing. For concert recordings the sound is excellent, although it is a shame that there was no way of muting the noise of heavy stomping near the start of Op 131. By all means leave the room if you have to, but why there? SJ

IT'S an extraordinary sensation to emerge from the Rondo finale of the Op 18 no 4 quartet - gypsy music with a subtext - and then, seconds later, to plunge into the mysterious half-light of the slow fugue which opens Op 131. Suddenly this group's namesake is only a step away. I think it pays to mix, to cross-fertilise the 'three ages' of Beethoven quartets in this way: it puts into perspective the immensity of the journey he took, the wisdom he acquired on it, but equally, the questions which never got answered.

The Alban Bergs have taken the journey many times now - once in a series of studio recordings - and they're still asking the questions. But there's nothing like a live performance to focus the mind and motivate a renewed sense of adventure. That's what happens here. For me, these shared experiences in the Konzerthaus, Vienna have unlocked something freer and warmer in their playing - the chill air of severity is there only by design.

There's a palpable sense of human contact, of oneness both with music and listener. The lyrical proliferations of the great Op 127 Adagio seem more infinite than ever, inventions of the moment; the radiant Cavatina of Op 130 or the equally personal Adagio of Op 59 no 1 is likewise music redefined in the playing of it.

As ever, this is playing fiercely projected through a practised vocabulary of subtle weightings, colourings, inflections: how characterfully they are deployed through the uncharted variations of the Op 131 Andante, or in the ensuing short, sharp shock of a Presto whose final bars seem suddenly to shrink to a scratchy parody of themselves. After that, the single sentence of the Adagio - properly understated - is nothing more than a fleeting mirage. Compelling. ES

SCHUBERT: Sonatas for violin

and piano

Gidon Kremer, Oleg Maisenberg

(DG 437 092-2)

IT'S breathtaking to think how much music Franz Schubert turned out in his short life. In 1816, the year in which he composed these three sonatas, he also wrote two symphonies, a Mass, over 100 songs and part of an opera. But the real miracle is that so much of the music is of such high quality - these little sonatas are just as full of good ideas as the contemporary Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, and the way in which Schubert develops them is even more imaginative and secure.

So it is a pleasure to hear performances that take these pieces on their own terms: plenty of passion, drama, but balanced with classical poise (Mozart, not Beethoven, is the ideal here), and no straining after 'prophetic' insights - you con find intimations of great Schubert to come if you want to, but they are not what the music is about.

The Kremer-Maisenberg partnership has plenty of time to mature, and you can hear the results only in the shared conviction of their playing but in the subtle variations as a figure is passed from one instrument to another - dialogue is exactly the word. The recordings catch it all faithfully. SJ

GIDON KREMER'S first entry in the A minor sonata might suggest that he is making a drama out of a crisis. But there's a forcefulness implicit in the theme itself - Schubert outreaching himself by leaps and bounds. Almost everything about these pieces - among the rich pickings from Schubert's 19th year - belies their apparently small scale, and Kremer is just the man to take them right out of the salon and into a more public domain.

He is, of course, always a little larger than life - larger, certainly, in personality than Oleg Maisenberg, his partner here. But they bond well, enjoying the many surprises, the very particular, often startling modulations that Schubert throws their way (the Andante of the A minor sonata offers a series of captivating metamorphoses), the way in which the stern declamation at the start of the G minor sonata is immediately transformed into something conciliatory, or the shadowy tonal shift in the second movement of the same sonata.

Big dramatic effects on a small scale - the songwriter's skill.