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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
String Quartets: 1885-1889

Molto moderato – Scherzo, JS134 (1885) [4:15]
Scherzo in B minor (1885) completed by Kalevi AHO [0:43]
String Quartet in E flat major, JS184 (1885) [17:41]
Four Themes (1887) [1:52]
Three Pieces (1888) [3:23]
Allegretto in D major, JS20 (1888) [2:12]
Andantino in C major, JS39 (1888) [3:06]
Theme and Variations in C sharp minor, JS195 (1888) completed by Kalevi Aho [6:20]
33 Small Pieces (1888-89) [18:08]
Allegro in G minor (1888-89) [0:32]
Andante – Allegro molto in D major, JS32 (1888-89) [6:17]
Andante molto sostenuto in B minor, JS37 (1888-89) [7:40]
Tempera Quartet
Recorded on 16-20 February 2004 at Lanna Church, Sweden. DDD
BIS-CD-1376 [74:28]

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The enterprising BIS label are now up to volume 56 in their complete Sibelius series. The Sibelius Edition has drawn on the manuscript scores that the Sibelius family donated in the mid-1980s to Helsinki University Library.

Sibelius’s output in the genre of the string quartet has proved to be far richer and more extensive than was first realised and BIS state that all of these recordings, with the exception of the String Quartet in E flat major from 1885, are world premières.

For many years any discussion of Sibelius’s chamber music was monopolised by the famous String Quartet in D minor, ‘Intimate voices’, op. 56 (1908-09). The Helsinki manuscripts show just how the genre gained the composer’s affection during his early twenties, in the latter part of the 1880s. Commencing with works for string trio gradually pieces for the string quartet started to assume a more prominent position in his chamber output.

The main work here is the String Quartet in E flat major which Sibelius composed in the summer of 1885. It is one of Sibelius’s earliest works to be preserved intact and was composed in Hämeenlinna just before he moved to Helsinki to start his university studies. This fascinating work has been compared to a school report documenting his boyhood and his interest in the classical masters. There is much that recalls Haydn in the extended opening movement especially its sonata form. The middle two movements, andante and scherzo, are of modest proportions. Sibelius uses a sprightly polonaise to conclude the score.

The set of pieces entitled 33 Small Pieces for String Quartet were composed between 1888 and 1889. Each of these brevities has its own well defined musical character. They represent Sibelius at his most uninhibited. The seventh piece sounds somewhat like Dvořák’s American Quartet and piece number twelve anticipates Prokofiev’s ballet: Romeo and Juliet. There is no significant thematic development and one can hardly imagine that they were intended for public performance.

Sibelius thought highly enough of his Theme and Variations in C sharp minor from 1888 to include it in his first sequential list of works. It originally formed part of a full String Quartet that was performed in 1888. Unfortunately the complete work has not survived intact and the single surviving movement has been made performable by Kalevi Aho.

By the years 1888 and 1889 Sibelius was making great strides as a composer. The Andante – Allegro molto in D major sounds like an attempt to write a rondo finale. Another such work from around the same period is the Andante molto sostenuto in B minor presented in rondo form that could serve as the slow movement of a String Quartet.

The Tempera Quartet from Finland are to be congratulated for their utmost enthusiasm and considerable verve. I especially enjoyed their impressive poignancy in the Andante molto sostenuto in B minor, their warm expressiveness in the Theme and Variations in C sharp minor and their fresh and firm-bodied interpretation of the String Quartet in E flat major.

This is a fine recording. The sound is cool and clear and the booklet notes are excellent. These are fascinating early works from Sibelius that will appeal mainly to specialist collectors.

Michael Cookson

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