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MUSIC REVIEWS : Britten Quartet Polished and Polite

November 08, 1994|TIMOTHY MANGAN

Some performers see a piece of music as a responsibility; others, as an opportunity. Listeners admire the former type while (secretly, perhaps) preferring the latter.

The Britten Quartet, appearing Sunday in Beckman Auditorium at Caltech in a Coleman Chamber Concert, is a distinctly admirable ensemble. Conscientious and polished musicians--violinists Peter Manning and Keith Pascoe,, violist Peter Lale and cellist Andrew Shulman--they performed their program as if they had done so thousands of times. Maybe they had.

This kind of hard-won poise doesn't work well in all music, however. Here, it worked best in Ravel's String Quartet, where instead of the often-encountered precious perfumes, coloristic niceties and fervent emotions, we heard warm lyricism, rhythmic and textural clarity and calm fluidity. A successful take on the piece.

But in Schubert's ubiquitous "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, the English musicians, on their first U.S. tour, missed their chances. It sounded as if precise ensemble and beautiful solo playing mattered more than the music itself. The intensity of this work, its underlying drama, poetry and relentlessness were lost in the effortlessness of the playing. It seemed like a breeze when it should have been a gale.

In the less-familiar challenge of Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 2, one was thankful for the lucidity of the performance while not feeling entirely convinced. Behind this composer's formal clarity is wonder and ferocity, here not delivered. Perhaps Lale's bow clattering to the floor with the last chord of the piece summed up the performance.

In encore the quartet offered the little Polka by Glazunov, Liadov and Sokolov from the multi-composer, multi-movement "Les Vendredis." Cute.

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