Mstation Classical Reviews

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Fri, 28 Jan 2005

Sibelius String Quartets

Complete String Quartets
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Sibelius Academy Quartet / New Helsinki Quartet

String Quartet in E flat (1885)
String Quartet in A minor (1889) 

String Quartet in B flat Op4 (1890)
String Quartet in D minor Op56 "Voces Intimae" (1909)

Recorded in JŠrvenpŠŠ Hall, December 1988 (E flat), Convent Church,
Naantali, October 1984 and November 1984 (a minor and B flat) and Sigyn
Hall, Turku, September 1997 (Op 56)

Finlandia Records1927-40872-2 [47.22] & [65.02]

Mention of String Quartets and Sibelius and most aficionados look knowing and mutter about "Voces Intimae" (assuming that they haven't got confused and start extolling the virtues of "Intimate Letters" - the similarly named string quartet by Janacek) but "Voces Intimae", although certainly Sibelius' most profound utterance in the String Quartet medium, was actually the culmination of a process of quartet writing that covered the composer's whole career. Finlandia records are gaining an enviable reputation for imaginative projects, but have here adopted a more traditional approach to the music of Finland's greatest. This production of the complete quartets does, however, throw the famous "Voces Intimae" into a new context by juxtaposition with Sibelius other three quartets.

Admittedly, these are all earlier works dating from the three main periods of Sibelius student career. However, one has to take issue with the booklet note, which describes these works as "youthful" and comments that the composition of the Kullervo Symphony of 1891 "marked the beginning of his (Sibelius') true career as a composer". This comment implies that, although the Kullervo Symphony is indeed usually considered the starting point of Sibelius' international reputation, there is something of the nature of juvenilia about the first three quartets. This is far from the case.

The E flat quartet was written when Sibelius was 20 and before he moved to Helsinki from his childhood home of HŠmeenlinna. The town had an active musical life in which Sibelius and his siblings played an active part in the performance of chamber music. The quartet undoubtedly shows this influence in being essentially cast in a Viennese mould, especially reminiscent of Haydn. However in the scale of the work (the first movement alone being nearly 10 minutes long) and in the, often, idiosyncratic harmonic touches, we see the beginnings of that individuality which makes the later Sibelius so instantly recognisable. The E flat quartet is imbued throughout with youthful vigour and sunlight - a glitteringly charming piece of quartet writing that deserves to be much better known, and certainly gives the lie to the oft-repeated comments about Sibelius being a slow developer.

The a minor quartet of 1889 is an even larger work, the proportions of the movements, one to another, having the beginnings of a symphonic relationship. Even the third movement scherzo is five and half minutes long. While still in an essentially classical idiom the individual sound of Sibelius' musical world is beginning to show clearly in this work. By the following year (1890) when the B flat quartet was completed Sibelius was handling the technique of string quartet composition with a mastery that belies the fact that he was still only 25. Here is a masterpiece of the repertoire and this was the first of the quartets to which Sibelius attached an opus number.

The performances of these three early quartets by the Sibelius Academy Quartet are thoughtful and take the music on its own merits, which are considerable. Given that the recordings were actually made in 1988 they are not showing undue signs of age. The balance between the players is excellent, avoiding any undue domination by the first violin which, it must be admitted, carries an important role in musical material in all of these works - Sibelius himself long dreamed of being a virtuoso violinist and only turned fully to composition on belatedly realising that this ambition was not to be fulfilled - and Sibelius handling of violin writing was always not only assured by full of the confidence of the performer/composer.

A more modern recording, made in 1997, features for the performance of the famous Opus 56 quartet "Voces Intimae" written in 1909 and here performed by the New Helsinki Quartet. This is another group of Finns with the music of Sibelius flowing through their veins. The recorded sound is splendid and captures not only the luminosity of the quartet sound but also gives due gravitas and richness to the lower registers of all the instruments. "Voces Intimae" is a weighty and serious work, straddling the transitional phase between the romanticism of the third Symphony and the more taut internally rich classicism of the forth Symphony. In this it has an important place as not only the sole work of chamber music from Sibelius mature period, but also as a precursor of the stylistic change that occurred between the third and forth symphonies. It is not, however, without its lighter moments - witness the scherzo second movement, organically linked to the more elegiac opening movement, or the virtually continuous accelerando of the finale, with a nearly unbroken moto perpetuo of semiquavers. Sibelius manages to mould these features with a strong sense of organic growth - movements are linked through motifs and themes but these never appear as identical mottoes or signature tunes - and the New Helsinki Quartet understand the importance of the long-term view in this music. This underlines the sense of growth and almost continuous process of development that becomes such a feature of Sibelius later symphonic writing. All of this is encapsulated here in what must be regarded as one of the masterworks of the twentieth century quartet repertoire.

(c) 2005 Peter Wells

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