Arnold Schoenberg’s epic tone poem Verklärte
Nacht, originally composed for string sextet, was completed
in 1899, but had to wait until 1902 to receive its first performance.
No doubt this was Schoenberg’s first masterpiece; certainly it
was his first mature composition. It is inspired in part by Richard
Dehmel’s five-stanza poem in which a woman confesses to her lover
that she is pregnant by another man. The man, in a most altruistic
act, accepts her anyway and tells her that the love they share
for each other will bind him to the child, regardless of his not
being the father. Harmonically, this music is high octane Wagner,
intensely chromatic and lacking in a clear tonal center. A foretaste
of things to come, one early player of the work commented that
it seemed as though someone had smeared the score to Tristan
und Isolde when the ink was still wet.
A solemn hymn-like work, Sibelius’s Andante
festivo is contemporary with the Sixth Symphony and is a little
gem in its own right. Originally written for string quartet, it
is better know in its current guise for string orchestra and timpani
Shostakovich’s chamber symphonies are actually
sanctioned orchestrations of his string quartets. Rudolf Barshai
arranged the eighth quartet with the composer’s approval and supervision.
It is one of the Shostakovich’s most introspective and autobiographical
works. He once said to a friend that he doubted that anyone would
write a work in his memory after he was gone, so he decided to
write his own. Although completely effective, this work is a bit
of a pastiche of a number of earlier works, with quotes from more
than a half-dozen preceding compositions. Most famously, it contains
the D-Es-C-H motif, which is a spelling of the composer’s initials
derived from the German note names.
Puccini produced little else besides his twelve
operas. I Crisantemi was originally written for string
quartet in 1890, in memory of Amadeo, the Duke of Savoy. It is
a nostalgic little work, and opera lovers will recognize material
that later would appear in Manon Lescaut.
The Helsinki strings are a fine ensemble. They
play with warmth and romantic abandon where called for in the
Schoenberg, and with firm, precise articulation in the more technical
passages of the Shostakovich. All of the works on this disc receive
excellent performances, well paced, and with a fine sense of ensemble
and line. If there is a distraction at all, it is the persistent
cougher in the audience during the live performance of the Chamber
Symphony. It is too bad that this couldn’t have been edited out
in some way, for after its third occurrence, it goes from a hazard
of a live concert to an outright annoyance. Small bother though,
for the performances are outstanding and the repertoire is amongst
the best of its genre.
Kimma Korhonen provides a good essay, and the
English translation by well-known Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntajärvi
is idiomatic and precise. Sound production by Finlandia’s engineers
is of the first order. The sound is lush and has a warm, hearty
bloom. Balances between the sections are perfect, and perfectly
There should be nothing to deter a fan of string
music from buying this disc, except for the aforementioned asthmatic,
which mars a bit of the Shostakovich. Highly recommended.