Rautavaara: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quintet (Unknown Heavens)

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COMPOSERS: Rautavaara
LABELS: Ondine
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quintet (Unknown Heavens)
PERFORMER: Jean Sibelius Quartet; Jan-Erik Gustafsson (cello)
CATALOGUE NO: ODE 909-2
After Schubert’s glorious example, precious few composers have dared to compose a string quintet with two cellos for fear of inviting obvious comparisons with such a towering masterpiece. No such inhibitions seem to have affected Rautavaara, however. Commissioned by the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival to write a string quartet in 1997, the resultant work ‘acquired a will of its own… clearly demanding a second cello’, to quote the composer’s notes.

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The quintet’s subtitle ‘Unknown Heavens’, inspired by Rimbaud’s poem which Rautavaara set for male voice choir in the Seventies, provides both the poetic and musical stimulus for a four-movement work that apart from a brief flurry of energy in the finale, is primarily lyrical in nature, and has some of the feeling of timelessness that characterises the slow movement of the Schubert. Like a number of Rautavaara’s recent works, the musical language is strongly tonal with a fondness for writing passages laden with sweet consecutive thirds. In places he seems to recall Debussy, the English pastoral tradition and, in the stratospheric tremolo string writing of the closing bars, Sibelius. But these fleeting allusions to the past do not detract in any way from one’s admiration for a work of great spiritual beauty performed here with marvellous warmth and affection – qualities which also feature in the committed accounts of the equally Romantic though more dissonant First and Second Quartets. Erik Levi