LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: String Quartet in D minor (Voces intimae)
PERFORMER: Melos Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901671
The story of Sibelius and the string quartet is a frustrating one. All that remain are two interesting but immature works from his early twenties and Voces intimae (Intimate Voices) from 1909 – halfway between the Third and Fourth symphonies. There are times when Voces intimae sounds like a work for orchestral strings arranged for four soloists; but elsewhere – and especially in the sadly reflective slow movement – Sibelius shows a true instinct for the genre. If he’d gone on exploring its possibilities we might have had works to match the later symphonies in imaginative power and concentration.
As it is – well, let’s be thankful for what we’ve got. As the Melos Quartet demonstrates, Sibelius’s one mature quartet is persuasively argued and full of utterly characteristic, memorable things: the ingenious transformations of the folklike opening phrases in the first movement; the misty, dancing textures of the following Vivace; and the moments of tender self-revelation in the Adagio – some of the most intimate music Sibelius ever wrote. No group reveals the organic strength of this music better than the Melos. Its version is altogether tauter than that of the Gabrieli Quartet on Chandos. But it’s the Gabrieli which exposes the heart of that crucial slow movement, and for that, ultimately, I’d stick with it. Still, the Melos may persuade one or two doubters, and Verdi’s quirky but very likeable Quartet makes a refreshing coupling. Apparently Verdi began his Quartet as an exercise in strict four-part writing. The best laid plans… Stephen Johnson