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MUSIC REVIEWS

South Bay Opener Previews Recordings

September 23, 1996|TIMOTHY MANGAN

Though the program booklet made no mention of it, and few in the audience could have known, the 34th season of the South Bay Chamber Music Society got under way at Los Angeles Harbor College Friday night with a preview of a major recording project.

The performers were the Angeles String Quartet. The group has been signed by Philips to record the string quartets of Franz Joseph Haydn--all 68 of them. (Thirty have already been recorded, but release isn't slated until 1998). Seldom heard early quartets by Haydn made up the first half of the concert.

Not that it was a thrill ride. In his string quartets Opus 9, No. 5 and Opus 17, No. 3, the so-called "Father of the String Quartet" was just getting his legs in a medium he later came to define and master. Though they have their moments, the quartets heard here only a scholar could love.

They both begin with bone dry and foursquare theme and variations movements, followed by stock minuets. Inspiration reaches higher levels in the songful slow movements and witty finales, yet, with the entire musical apparatus focused relentlessly on the first violin, these pieces don't ever achieve the conversational heights or interest of a true string quartet, a medium of equals.

The Angeles--Kathleen Lenski, Steven Miller, Brian Dembow and Stephen Erdody--performed them attentively, with a high degree of ensemble polish. A more playful touch would have been welcome at times--in the giddy finales, for instance--but the players' concentration had its own rewards.

This same inwardness, this deference to each other in the name of ensemble cohesion, could be heard in rock solid accounts of Webern's Six Bagatelles and, especially, Beethoven's Opus 132 Quartet, which emerged with all its notes in place, its phrases well cut, its contrasts observed, yet failed to soar. It became a drama without protagonists, or at least strong personalities.

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