Philharmonic Quartet Berlin, City Hall Theatre, February 27 The opening night of this chamber group from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra received such glowing reports that a triumphant evening was anticipated for their final recital. In fact, with two transcendent string quartets from Beethoven and Schubert, as well as Webern's rarely played early Five Pieces, the night promised nothing short of revelation. However it was well into the evening - specifically the second movement of Schubert's Death And The Maiden quartet - before they got their act together. Before that, the performance was peculiarly embarrassing. And I'm not referring to an idiosyncratic interpretation. The Beethoven Grosse Fugue contains such enigmas, mysteries and unspoken ideas that any musicians could be given some leeway. On this occasion, it was simply poor technical playing. The four players in effect sawed through the movement, their bows hard against the wood. The first violin was out of tune and countless errors were committed. The first hurdle, though, is making the maddening counterpoint transparent to give Beethoven's primal energy a real force. These musicians created a tapestry whose threads were mixed and crooked, where not even the slow middle-section seemed to make sense. One could only think that if string quartets are the arts of friends, then the Philharmonic Quartet Berlin has the brotherly love of Lu Ping and Chris Patten. The 11-minute Five Pieces was far better. Radical for its time (about 90 years ago), it seemed easier than the hard-going Beethoven. And Schubert's Death And The Maiden ? This was serious playing, but rarely dark. The death-like opening bars of the second movement were played like a song, with little intensity. The scherzo had a pleasant middle section and the finale was played at a reasonable pace. The problem was that such immortal music had skirted close to being simply banal.