> Sibelius String Quartets [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Complete String Quartets

String Quartet in E flat major (1885)
String Quartet in A minor (1889)
String Quartet in B flat major (1890)
String Quartet in D minor Voces Intimae (1909)
Sibelius Academy Quartet (E fl major, A minor, B fl major)
New Helsinki Quartet (Voces Intimae)
rec. Convent Church, Naantali Oct 1984 (A minor); Nov 1984, (B fl major), Järvenpää Hall, Dec 1988 (E fl major), Sigyn Hall, Sept 1997 (Voces Intimae), DDD
FINLANDIA 0927-40872-2 [2CDs: 47.22+65.02]


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Rather like his friend and practical supporter Granville Bantock, we do not think of Sibelius in chamber music terms. Like Bantock, his natural expressive environment is the orchestra. This is certainly true of the mature years however his teens and twenties were littered with chamber works designed for a domestic context: for music making among friends and as a medium for learning. The 1885 quartet has precious few Sibelian hallmarks. It is liquidly flowing, Schubertian and at times touched with Haydn's euphony (as in the start of the Vivace). The second movement is the most characteristic with two episodes suggestive of what was to come - one a swirling figure which looks to En Saga and the other echoing a passage in one of the delectable and still too little heard Humoresques (violin and orchestra).

The A minor work is from four years later and already we sense the music deepening and probing outwards towards a new vocabulary. 'Sight unseen' this is the sort of music which some might identify as from the Weigl and early Zemlinsky school - late romantic, teetering on the edge of expressionism. In the final allegro, the most classical of the four movements, we sense transient ‘shadows’ from the Violin Concerto.

We stay with the Sibelius Academy Quartet (including the wonderful Arto Noras, cello) for the B flat major quartet, coupled on the second CD with the Voces Intimae quartet. This work carries the opus number 4 (its two predecessors were bereft of opus numbers). A copy of the score carries the designation 'No. 2', making the A minor No. 1. The B flat major has its moments as in the crystalline poise of the Presto with its folk-rustlings and the rocking motif (suggestive of En Saga again) in the finale but the first two movements are queasy and unconvincing.

All doubts flee in the face of the five movement Voces Intimae (inward voices - but why and what are they saying?), a work of full maturity, written between the Third and Fourth Symphonies. A classical purity fused with nature (as in the Third Symphony) can be heard in Voces. In the Vivace the composer looks forward to the Sixth Symphony and in the virtuosic finale to some of the suspenseful string writing encountered in the Fifth Symphony. Oddly enough this work reminded me very often of Smetana's 'From My Life' quartet - something about the line of the themes, the desperation and the yearning.

This is not the first time Finlandia have had such a coupling: 4509 95851-2 included the Academy's versions of the first three quartets and an analogue tape of them playing the Voces Intimae. To create the present, entirely digital, collection, Warners have simply detached the New Helsinki Voces from its Grieg companion (on 09027 40601-2) and substituted it for the Academy's analogue taping.

These are committed readings ripely advocated by the artists and by Finlandia’s engineers. Although ten years separate these sessions I did not detect any deficiency in the 1980s tapes.
Rob Barnett

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