EMANUEL AX, SIR CHARLES MACKERRAS AND THE ORCHESTRA OF THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT; Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, op. 21, Grand Fantasia on Polish Airs, op. 13, and Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise, op. 22 (Sony Classical) * * *

Two veteran musicians - pianist Emanuel Ax and conductor Charles Mackerras - make a fine team as they pair up for this delightful all-Chopin recording, complementing one another for a well-balanced performance.The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is relatively new and distinguishes itself from other orchestras by performing exclusively on original instruments. Ax, too, plays on a piano from 1851.

Using original instruments changes the character of the music as we are accustomed to hearing it. In addition, the orchestra is tuned slightly lower than today's standard. The sound therefore is not as brilliant as a modern symphony orchestra's; it is much more mellow and warm.

Ax gives a fine interpretation of the concerto. He is a consummate musician who never lets the virtuosity of the music take the upper hand. Ax plays the work with disarming simplicity, as virtuosic displays are tossed off with an easy effort.

Exceptionally beautiful is the slow second movement, which is reminiscent of one of Chopin's nocturnes for solo piano. Ax just lets his instrument sing.

Mackerras and the orchestra offer sensitive accompaniment, always allowing the soloist to shine in the limelight.

The other works on the album are slender compared to the concerto. Nonetheless they possess a certain amount of charm, and Ax plays them with flair and grace. Noteworthy is the "Andante spianato" for solo piano, which acts as an introduction to the polonaise to follow.

In Ax's hands, this flowing, almost ethereal music wafts in the air like a wisp of smoke on a summer day. Lovely music, played simply. What more does one need?

ANDREAS KLEIN; Beethoven, Piano Sonatas in E major, op. 109 and A major, op. 101; Alban Berg, Piano Sonata, op. 1 (Finer Arts Classical) * * *

The works on this album demand a pianist who possesses an outstanding technical mastery of the instrument along with a wealth of interpretive skills. German-born Andreas Klein has all these qualities. He is a virtuoso in every sense of the word.

These are not easy works that Klein performs. The two Beethoven sonatas are filled with the utmost refinement and subtlety of expression, and the Berg sonata is one of the pillars of 20th century piano music. Klein triumphs over the challenges these two composers have created.

Of the two works by Beethoven, Klein does a much better job with the A major sonata. He plays the work with sensitivity and careful detail to the plethora of emotions Beethoven unleashes here, especially in the final movement. This is a fine interpretation of this masterpiece.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about Klein's performance of the E major sonata. It's almost as if two different pianists are at work here. The first two movements are played much too quickly, and there is no feeling of emotional involvement on Klein's part. However, Klein redeems himself in the last movement, a stunningly poignant, dramatic and expressive set of variations. He shows himself to be a poet of infinite grace, as he weaves his way through the increasingly complex variations before the simple and unassuming theme returns once again at the end.

The Berg sonata is a monumental tour de force. Klein is nothing short of phenomenal here, and the album is worth getting just for his performance of this work.

MOSCOW STRING QUARTET WITH GARY GRAFF-MAN; Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 3, op. 73; Alfred Schnittke, Piano Quintet (Finer Arts Classical) * * *

The music on this CD is powerful, intense and fraught with emotions ranging from the grotesquely humorous to the painfully melancholy. This music is not for everyone. It can all too easily become depressing looking into the depths of someone's soul and not finding anything even remotely resembling hope.

This negativity, however, shouldn't be too surprising, given the souls one is made to examine here. Shostakovich's quartet was written in the horrible aftermath of World War II. The bleakness of that era is reflected in this work.

Also significant with Shostakovich is the parodying he does, making a macabre mockery of simple tunes, almost as if he was mocking himself - the Russian composer giving in to Stalinist ideals in order to survive. What a terrible compromise for anyone to make.

The Moscow Quartet's performance of this work plumbs the depths of that soul. Their performance is incomparable.

Pianist Gary Graffman joins the Moscow Quartet in Schnittke's Piano Quintet, written some 30 years after Shostakovich's quartet. This, too, is heart-rending music of abject despair. There is a disquieting urgency to the music that is never resolved.

Schnittke also grapples with his identity. He comes to terms with it by writing music that embraces many different styles and techniques, and music that is both emotionally involved yet also coldly abstract. This dichotomy prompts the question, "Where is Schnittke hiding?"

Both these works plead to be heard.