Sibelius Academy Quartet
Seppo Tukiainen, Erkki Kantola, Veikko Kosonen, Arto Noras
Recorded: Jarvenpaa Hall, 12/1988 (E flat major) / The Convent Church, Naatali, 10/1984 (A minor) and 11/1984 (B flat major) / Sibelius Academy Concert Hall, Helsinki, 12/1980 (D minor)
========= from the cover ==========
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): The Complete String Quartets
Little is known about the early works of Jean Sibelius, for it is only in recent years that they have come to light again. They do, however, provide a rich additional insight into Sibelius the composer. Most of them are for chamber ensemble or piano and were written during three different periods, classified according to where the young musician was studying at the time. In the first period he was still living in his native Hameenlinna, about 100 km north of Helsinki, and studying composition more or less on his own. In spring 1885 he graduated from school and moved in the autumn of the same year to Helsinki to begin studying at the Helsinki Music College (nowadays the Sibelius Academy). This marked the beginning of the second period. The third period covers the years 1889 to 1891 and was spent in Berlin and Vienna. By the time he returned from Vienna in 1891, he had completed his formal studies and produced his youthful works. The great Kullervo Symphony composed in 1891-1892 marked the beginning of his true career as a composer.
String Quartet in E flat major
Soon after taking up the violin, the young Sibelius got into the habit of playing chamber music with his brother and sister both at home and at soirees held in the town of Hameenlinna. He thus became well versed in the art of chamber music and many of the classics -Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven - at an early age. But in addition to the violin he was soon also teaching himself composition. Even before he moved to Helsinki he had already written a number of chamber works that were performed at least within the family circle and possibly also outside the home.
The String Quartet in E flat major written in the summer of 1885 was one of these works, though it is uncertain whether it was ever performed. It is also one of the earliest works by Sibelius that has been preserved intact, and it was written between his school years in Hameenlinna and his move to Helsinki. It is therefore something in the nature of a "school report", a retrospective document of his boyhood and of his interest in the classical masters. For this work, bursting with joy and sunshine, is for the most part in Viennese classical style and chiefly reminiscent of Haydn. In character it is loving and "innocent", but in addition to the classical episodes it has some original, unusual turns and moments that suggest a budding romanticism.
String Quartet in A minor
Jean Sibelius's fourth and last Spring term at the Helsinki Music Institute in 1889 culminated in the a minor string quartet. As soon as he had completed the score of his work, he rushed off to his friend Ferruccio Busoni, chief piano teacher at the institute since the autumn of 1888. Busoni put the manuscript on his music stand and played right through the quartet at sight. The performance engraved itself on Sibelius's memory: "And how he played it!"
The a minor quartet was given its first performance by the institute's own string quartet, although the place of the second violinist, Jean Sibelius, was taken by a substitute. From the very beginning Sibelius made a powerful impression on Busoni: "We paid attention when we realized that we were in the presence of something far beyond the ordinary pupil."
Sibelius was to call himself an orchestra man - with every reason. His own instrument, as we know, was the violin. As soon as he had learned the foundations of violin playing in his childhood home of Hameenlinna, he played in various chamber music groups that performed at the evening entertainments of families in the town. He became acquainted with the quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and later also Schubert's and Mendelssohn's chamber music, as a performing artist, "from the inside" -certainly a useful schooling for a future composer. He also studied A.B. Marx's composition handbook on his own. During his years in the gymnasium he composed, among other things, a piano trio and a string quartet in the style of Haydn, with certain Scandinavian features. A sonata - later called suite - for violin and piano reflects his interest in Grieg and Tchaikovsky.
On entering the Helsinki Music Institute in the autumn of 1885, Sibelius chose the violin as his main subject. "Everyone has his life's tragedy. Mine was that I wanted to be a violin virtuoso at any price. " But a performance of Mendelssohn's violin concerto, judged technically as "creditable", turned his thoughts in other directions. The last two years at the institute were spent in full time study of composition with the director of the institute, Martin Wegelius.
This did not, however, prevent him from taking part, during the Spring term of 1889, in a performance of Schumann's piano quintet with Busoni at the piano. A string trio by Sibelius was performed shortly afterwards and roused interest, but only with the a minor string quartet did the composer breach the wall of the Helsinki music critics.
1st movement Andante - Allegro
Even for the young Sibelius, Beethoven was "the great artist". It seems quite clear that in the a minor quartet Sibelius was inspired by the grand scale, the rich texture and the daring grasp of Beethoven's string quartets, above all perhaps by the Razumovsky quartets. And yet the fragile Nordic melancholy of the introduction to the first movement is linked stylistically with Grieg. The rhythm, the pointed melody line (reminiscent of Solveig's Song), the free treatment of the key of a minor, which appears in both melodic and harmonic guise - occasionally even acquiring a modal, Dorian, character - all of this points towards Grieg. A falling sequence of intervals anticipates Sibelius's own string quartet, Voces intimae, almost thirty years later. A deviation to C major, suddenly overshadowed by a Tristan chord - and the introduction dies away, ppp.
The first subject, Allegro, is firmly constructed with a striking profile: a rising scale figure, followed by a row of aspiring iambic leaps, whilst the semi-quaver figures continue in the second violin. Generally speaking, the polyphonic element is prominent throughout the quartet. A lyrical transitional theme in e minor, interrupted by passionate reminiscences of the first subject, merges into the freely formed, nimble second subject in C major. The final group with its fanfare-like triplets culminates in a final theme, whose alternately falling and rising interval rows are typical of the later Sibelius.
By way of contrast, the development begins with a polyphonic arrangement of the lyrical, transitional theme, dolce. Various elements from the exposition march by. Our attention is drawn, amongst other things, by the sudden glimpses of micro-motifs from the final subject with the tritone interval in the bass.
2nd movement, Adagio ma non troppo
The three-piece frame section in E major is a music of dreams and passions. The dissonance in the second bar - the sustained B of the second violin and viola against the cello's C -already creates a strange, detached mood. When the other strings then begin, con suono dolce, their leaps of ninths, with a gliding rhythm and unexpected accents, the musical language comes increasingly close to the irrational.
The middle section is shaped like a serenade. The first violin plays a passionate melody - when he is not plucking his instrument. The second violin surges forward, whilst the violin and the cello confine themselves to pizzicato. The roles are the reversed, with the melody heard in the cello whilst the first violin shines in a virtuoso passage.
3rd movement, Vivace
Of the four movements of the a minor quartet the third, the scherzo, is most reminiscent of Beethoven. It is based on a main section in F major, which is repeated twice with minor melodic variants and in an increasingly virtuoso setting. The three A sections are separated by two contrasting sections, B and C. The form of the scherzo thus becomes A-B-A-C-A.
In the main section the melody moves in mazurka rhythm and one is aware of Sibelius's familiarity with the special features of this dance form. A virtuoso rising scale ends in a typical rhythmic formula which is repeated in the next two bars. In the middle section of the dance, in Eb major, a dissonant chord of A major suddenly appears with a jarring effect -typical of the revolutionary Beethoven, but also a premonition of Sibelius's fourth symphony.
The first contrasting section B, in the restful Bb major of the sub-dominant, has a faint suggestion of folk song in contrast with the temperamental main section. In the second contrasting section, in f minor, the melancholy, sometimes chromatic melody occurs in the cello part.
4th movement, Allegro
The main theme is a sparklingly virtuoso and rhythmically intricate dance melody with a Norwegian touch. It is first taken up by the viola and then transferred to the second violin, whereupon the viola continues with a counter melody. Then comes the turn of the violin and the cello.
An arpeggio motif in the bass is the source of the countersubject, where chords of the seventh and ninth expand to elevenths in the style of Grieg, often with impressionist effects. But the final climax is in bleak a minor with harsh dissonances.
String Quartet in B flat major
The B flat major quartet was one of the earliest works to which Sibelius was later to attach an opus number. The manuscript has not been preserved in its entirety, but it is clear from a contemporary copy that the original title was "Quartett No 2 (B-dur)", implying that Sibelius regarded the a minor quartet as number 1. Sibelius began the quartet in the summer of 1889 in Loviisa, where he was living in the Sibelius family's old home. Chamber music was apparently the focus of his composition. For a casino concert at this summer bathing resort he played the violin part in a recently composed sonata for violin and piano, where the modal middle movement anticipates the tone poem En saga.
When Sibelius went to Berlin in the autumn to study, he interrupted work on the quartet, to the annoyance of his teacher Martin Wegelius, who had seen sketches for the work: "It must have been a mild genius though who stood by your side while you were writing the B flat major quartet - were you wise to let it spread its wings in flight - away from you?" On his return from Berlin Sibelius completed the quartet in the autumn of 1890. The first performance took place in Helsinki on October 13th, 1890. The first violin in the Music Institute's quartet was the famous Norwegian composer, Johan Halvorsen.
The first movement, Allegro, - with its Nordic transparency - has a classical foundation. The main subject is almost pentatonic, but the gently advancing line soon changes into dotted rhythms. This rhythmic element is characteristic of the whole first movement and dominates the development section, for example, with an insistance reminiscent of late Beethoven or Schumann. An expressive episode in f sharp minor shows that Sibelius has not forgotten his love for Tchaikovsky. The romantically coloured second movement, Andante sostenuto, takes the form of a set of variations on a lyrical Finnish folk-song in the Aeolian mode, although for all its modal character it is of much later origin than the runic melodies.
The long initial note of the waltz-like main theme (D major) of the scherzo is typical of the later Sibelius's melodic structure. The trio section in g minor is unexpected with its dense, almost orchestral texture. The broad cantilena of the viola rings out over the cello's chord foundation, whilst the first and second violins move in parallel thirds, anticipating the characteristic woodwind passages in the symphonies.
The finale takes the form of a four-part variant on a polonaise. In spite of the difference in rhythm, the main subject is rather reminiscent of the finale theme of the violin concerto (1904).
The dear, restrained classicism of the B flat major quartet provides a key to the later stylistic transitions of the composer, for example in the third symphony.
String Quartet in D minor, 'Voces intimae'
Late in 1908, Sibelius completed the orchestral work entitled Night Ride and Sunrise. Immediately thereafter, he began work on a new composition, a string quartet. In February 1909, Sibelius went to London to conduct some of his works at a concert, after which he stayed in London for a while to work on the quartet In early April he moved first to Paris and then to Berlin, where he completed the quartet on April 15. Sibelius wrote to his wife Aino in Finland, describing the work thus: "It turned out quite wonderful. It is the sort of thing that will make one smile even on one's deathbed."
The D-minor String Quartet - subtitled Voces intimae, or 'Internal voices' - is the only significant chamber music work produced by Sibelius in his mature period, even though at that time he had plans to write several quartets. Voces intimae lies between the Third (1907) and Fourth (1911) Symphonies. In his Third, Sibelius had moved from the Romantic world of the first two symphonies to a more austere but internally rich Classicism. His language of expression was further reduced in the expressionistic Fourth Symphony, which almost resembles chamber music in its conception. In a way, the string quartet as a genre was particularly well suited to the new paths explored by Sibelius, and the Voces intimae quartet thus forms a link between the Third and Fourth Symphonies.
The Voces intimae quartet differs from Sibelius' other major works in that it has five movements, the two first of which are coalesced into one with no intervening pause. The movements are linked through motifs and themes, albeit processed through a typically Sibelian organic treatment rather than appearing as identically similar mottos or signature tunes. The subtitle was given by Sibelius himself, but the work does not reflect any specific programme which the name could lead one to contemplate.
The first movement begins with a short
dialogue between the first violin and cello (Andante), accelerating shortly into Allegro molto moderate The movement is in sonata form, but it is more of a peacefully flowing meditation than a musical drama juxtaposing contrasting elements. The scherzo-like Vivace follows directly on from this; its motifs are related to the second subject of the first movement, and Sibelius' diary reference to the Vivace as "movement 11/2" was not jocular. For most of its brief duration, the Vivace adheres to the lower end of the dynamic scale and escalates to forte only briefly. The use of tremolo is a dominant feature of this movement.
The Adagio di molto is the focus of the quartet and one of the finest slow movements Sibelius ever wrote. Its broadly singing mood echoes warmly comforting and painfully nostalgic sentiments in turn. In part, the movement seems to contain references to things to come, i.e. the Fourth Symphony. The subtitle, Voces intimae, refers to this movement in particular, since Sibelius wrote these words in a study score of the work next to the quiet E minor chords in bars 21 and 22. In the F minor environment and following an E flat major chord, this harmony seems to emerge from another world.
The fourth movement (Allegretto ma pesan-te) begins with a weighty theme which is the easiest to comprehend in the entire work and which is related to the main subject of the first movement. The second subject here, on the other hand, is related to the Adagio. This movement is carried forward by the characteristic triplet runs, especially in the second violin and viola. The finale (Allegro) is a virtually continuous accelerando with a nearly unbroken moto perpetuo of semiquavers. However, this display of energy does not conceal the fundamental seriousness of the music: the two heavy and unrelenting D minor chords in the final bars form a logical conclusion to all that has gone before them.
Notes by Kari Kilpelainen (E flat), Erik Tawaststjerna and Kimmo Korhonen (D minor).