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ORION STRING QUARTET; Beethoven Middle String Quartets (KOCH International Classics) ****

BELCEA QUARTET; Bartok String Quartets 1-6 (EMI Classics) ** 1/2

Since being formed in 1987, the Orion String Quartet has had a stellar existence (it was perhaps fortuitous that the founding members named their group after a constellation).

One of the premiere quartets today, the Orion's performances are notable for their expressiveness, their remarkable artistry and their near sublime musicality. And their interpretive talents are supreme — few quartets come even close to the Orion's mastery of the repertoire.

Their recording of Beethoven's middle quartets is one of the best available today. They capture the drama, the expressiveness and the profound lyricism of the works wonderfully with their vibrant playing. Their readings are nuanced, subtle in expression and stunningly dynamic. From op. 59, no. 1, to op. 95, each performance is beautifully crafted, exquisitely played and completely irresistible.

The Orion is one of the few quartets to alternate the first violin position (brothers Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips share the first violin spot). And it's impossible to tell who is playing which position on these recordings (if it weren't noted in the program), since their playing is so well integrated and so perfectly balanced. The foursome really does sound like one instrument — their sound is homogeneous, smooth, textured and gorgeously resonant. This is one of the most polished and musical quartets in the business. And this album is not to be missed.

Bela Bartok's six string quartets are a journey through his creative life. From the first quartet, from the year 1908, to his last, written in 1939, six years before his death, one can trace the evolution of one of the most significant composers of the 20th century. In these works, Bartok transforms his music from the opulence of the late romanticism of Gustav Mahler and the young Arnold Schoenberg to the tragic and painful emotional depths of his last works. All this is encapsulated in these six quartets.

For a quartet to undertake a recording of the complete set is an immense challenge, as challenging as recording the 16 quartets by Beethoven (which also span his entire creative output). That the Belcea Quartet felt ready to tackle these works — and got EMI (not the easiest record label with which to work) to go along with the project — is impressive.

The Belcea, still a young group, has some very talented musicians with impeccable technical skills. But as they show on this Bartok album, they still need to improve their interpretative talents and develop their musicality and expressiveness.

The ensemble playing exhibited in these six works is wonderful; however, the performances come across a bit sterile and clinical, and they consistently lack passion and conviction. The four just need to hone their skills more. If they're still around, say, 10 years from now, it would be nice for them to revisit these works and see what they then have to offer listeners.

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