Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
String Quartet in D minor Voces Intimae Op. 56 (1909) [31.21]
String Quartet in A minor (1889) [33.39]
Leipziger Streichquartett
rec. Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, 22-24 January 2016

It may well be that it is not chamber music that immediately comes to mind when you think of Sibelius. That's fair enough but he certainly wrote pieces for chamber groupings. There are, for example some single movements for quartet composed when he was a young man. Then comes this A minor quartet of 1889 and there's at least one other apart from the B flat quartet known as Voces Intimae. There are also a few pieces for strings and piano like the Piano Trio of 1884.

Opportunities to hear the chamber works ‘live’ are quite rare so it’s good that we have a choice of performances on CD. At the latest count there seem to be at least eight versions of Voces Intimae in the current catalogue so an attempt to compare is likely to be longwinded. I'll just mention three discs: with Voces Intimae the Tempera (BIS - review) couple the B flat Quartet, the Gabrieli (Chandos CHAN8742) couple Sibelius’s Piano Quintet and the Fitzwilliam Quartet (Decca Eloquence- review) couple it, surprisingly, with Delius.

The D minor String Quartet Voces intimae is in five movements. I see the pattern of the work like this: two relatively short movements – an Andante leading into an Allegro moderato. Then comes a very short and scurrying Vivace which may well remind you of the finale of the Third Symphony (1907) written just a few years before. The longest movement, at well over ten minutes, is an Adagio. This marks the central point of the work but at the heart of this movement is a set of three pp chords over which Sibelius wrote the words Voces intimae. After that, to provide balance, there are two movements, an Allegretto which reminded me of the sound-world of the middle movement of the Fifth Symphony (begun initially in 1915) and a windy Allegro. Like the Fifth Symphony the form of this work, as you see, is unusual and uniquely Sibelius.

The present performance captures the work marvellously although, as I say, I am not able to make comparisons. For me it is sufficient to remember that the Leipziger Streichquartett, who were formed in 1988 and who have made about seventy recordings, have played this work on numerous occasions. They will have spent many a happy hour working on this uplifting piece and have reached conclusions represented by this interpretation. I say ‘uplifting’ because the work was composed just after Sibelius underwent a potentially life-threatening throat operation. This piece represents a sense of rising from pain into some sort of light although the D minor is seriously maintained to the end. The "intimate voices", whatever they are, played a central role in the composer's recovery.

Another particularly attractive feature about this CD is the coupling of the Quartet in A minor. It is a student work composed when Sibelius was about twenty at a time when he was studying at the Helsinki Conservatoire. It's a fine large-scale creation and what especially surprised me was how romantic it is in style. The second movement, an Adagio ma non troppo is unusually rich in harmony and overflows with lavish melodic inspiration. To emphasise this Conrad Muck, who here plays Violin I — apparently an instrument made in 1741 — uses a subtle but obvious portamento when the melody is, intervallically speaking, rather wide-ranging. I’m sure that Sibelius would have expected such an approach but it will take a little getting used to for some modern listeners. The first movement is the longest and is in sonata-form with three subjects. The third movement is a Scherzo with two trios and is full of “youthful exuberance” to quote Jorma Daniel Lünenbürger in his useful and quite analytical booklet notes. The finale, which is a little too long, is a replacement for the original, Beethoven-inspired fugal one. The new version is fugal in places but is best described as 'academically contrapuntal'. The piece was much acclaimed and greatly admired by, amongst others, Busoni who was to become one of Sibelius’s closest friends in later years.

As is also the case with Voces Intimae, the recording of the A minor work is especially vivid, beautifully balanced and spaced.

Altogether these are very rewarding performances and the disc is thoughtfully produced.

Gary Higginson

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