All-star roster, but not all-star playing

Beethoven, Piano Quartet in E flat (opus 16); Schumann, Piano Quartet in E flat (opus 47). Performed by pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Isaac Stern, violist Jaime Laredo and cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Sony Classical SK 53 339)

This music is not well served by this all-star roster. For starters, the Beethoven is heard in the composer's arrangement for piano and strings of his piano-and-winds original. The version for strings sounds bland compared to the piquant original, with the greater range of color made available through the contrasts of the timbre of the piano with those of the winds. Moreover, this weighty performance isn't a particularly good one. The presence of other musicians cannot conceal the fact that the septuagenarian Stern's intonation is consistently faulty. (Cellist Pablo Casals recorded several chamber music performances at Stern's age that were similarly flawed, but the great cellist played with insight and conviction that made them worth hearing.) Several other pianists -- notably Murray Perahia, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Rudolf Serkin and Alfred Brendel in the piano-and-winds version -- have provided more characterful playing than Ax does in this piano-dominated work. The performance of the neglected Schumann work is vital and sometimes inspired -- particularly in the way Ma makes the cello line sing in the restlessly beautiful slow movement -- but this does not entirely compensate for in sufficient polish and refinement.


Brahms, Sonatas No. 1 in E minor (opus 38) and No. 2 in F major (opus 99); Schumann, Fantasy Pieces (opus 73); and Mendelssohn, Song Without Words (opus 109). Performed by cellist Nathaniel Rosen and pianist Doris Stevenson (John Marks Records JMR 5)

These warm and affecting performances of the popular Brahms cello sonatas, captured in remarkably lifelike sound, are among the best available. In the way it obeys the imperatives of expressivity, Rosen's fearless playing recalls that of his teacher, Gregor Piatigorsky. His sound is always virile and ripely beautiful -- he eschews the somewhat emasculated (and uncello-like) purity of some of his better-known rivals -- and he is partnered sensitively by Stevenson. Cellist and pianist give lovely, leisurely accounts of the Schumann and Mendelssohn works that match those of the Brahms in subtlety and refinement.


Beethoven, Sonatas No. 3 in A major (opus 69), No. 4 in C (opus 102, No. 1) and No. 5 in D (opus 102, No. 2), and Variations on a Theme from Handel's "Judas Maccabaeus." Performed by cellist Misha Maisky and pianist Martha Argerich (Deutsche Grammophone 437 514-2)

There's nothing leisurely about these high-spirited and dramatic accounts of Beethoven's last three sonatas for cello and piano. Cellists often dread having to perform Beethoven's opus 69 -- because its ferocious piano part demands a virtuoso who can negotiate its treacherous thicket of notes, and because such a pianist is all the more likely to drown them out. Argerich is the most ferocious (and perhaps the greatest) of living pianists, but also -- as previous recordings with Maisky, violinist Gidon Kremer and others have demonstrated -- one our finest chamber music players. After the A Major Sonata's hushed, intense opening for unaccompanied cello -- gloriously played by Maisky -- Argerich's entrance has the effect of striking a match to gasoline. This is a performance that miraculously combines enormous power with clarity of texture and depth of feeling. The two musicians are equally convincing in the two later works -- whether in the tender and gentle opening of the C Major Sonata or in the explosive and obsessive counterpoint of the D Major Sonata's concluding fugue. With this disc (and an earlier one of Beethoven's opus 5 sonatas), Maisky and Argerich challenge the more than three decades of hegemony in this repertory enjoyed by the classic 1962 recording of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter.


To hear excerpts of Beethoven's Sonata in A, performed by cellist Misha Maisky and pianist Martha Argerich, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.