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String Quartet in D minor 'Voces intimae', Op 56

'Smetana & Sibelius: String Quartets' (CDA67845)
Smetana & Sibelius: String Quartets
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67845 
Movement 1: Andante – Allegro molto moderato
Movement 2: Vivace
Movement 3: Adagio di molto
Movement 4: Allegretto, ma pesante
Movement 5: Allegro

String Quartet in D minor 'Voces intimae', Op 56
Living in an unforgiving landscape, Sibelius's rural home outside Helsinki became a self-perpetuating exile. The harsh forest at Järvenpää on the banks of Lake Tuusula provided the setting for his home, which he named ‘Ainola’ (after his wife Aino). They moved there in 1903 to save Sibelius from the alcoholic temptations of Helsinki. His isolation was symptomatic of his increasingly bleak world view. Although early works embrace the fervour of Finnish nationalism—albeit echoing Tchaikovsky’s vivacious language and the Austro-German tradition to which he aspired—the seclusion at Ainola and his ongoing alcoholism took their toll. Yet personal shelter was, to some extent, counteracted by public affirmation, with new links made in England and Germany and with Richard Strauss and Mahler. Sibelius grew in confidence and his third symphony marked the apex of a period of self-assurance. Revealing himself as a true depressive, however, the highs immediately precipitated a downward alcoholic spiral. Debt and illness pervaded the Sibelius household and although the 1908 Night Ride and Sunrise ends with a numinous depiction of dawn, the string quartet Voces intimae and the fourth symphony that followed mark a total negation of that open-hearted image.

These two works can be seen as private and public demonstrations of Sibelius’s depressive disposition. They likewise mark a shift in his musical language, echoing his friend Mahler’s own change in his final symphonies from unbridled (if equivocal) joy toward passive submission. A plangent theme in the first violin (answered by the cello) provides the material for the free opening movement. Like Smetana’s second quartet, Sibelius’s work (also in D minor) is concise, breathless and conversational. Sharper, accented motifs jar against long-spun phrases, while the movement’s final thick double-stopped chords (with bare fifths and octaves) make for a profoundly disquieting conclusion. The scurrying and brief scherzo that follows (Vivace) is no less disconcerting—albeit couched in major keys—as confidential undertones (often harmonically at odds with each other) are thrown from instrument to instrument. The emotional core of the work is in its central Adagio di molto (by far the most extended movement). Rhythmically it is deliberately unsteady and littered with rubato. This earnest outpouring indicates something of the crossroads that Sibelius was facing in his career. Themes sound as if in isolation, grappling to find security in the confluence of their voices. Rare moments of union are tender but brief.

After the balm of the Adagio’s F major conclusion, the triple-time Allegretto (ma pesante) that follows (returning us to the tonic) seems all the more brusque. Yet like the Adagio, there is a lack of inner direction, emphasized by the free harmony and a twisting accompaniment. While classical dance forms inform the movement, Sibelius’s language pushes down altogether more rhapsodic avenues. The underlying disquiet of the preceding movements comes to the fore in the tense whispers of the finale. Clinging to the ruins of the tonic in the final bars, the quartet as a whole is deeply ambivalent. Looking forward as well as back, the work eloquently depicts a point of mental crisis. With Voces intimae Sibelius left behind his Romantic past and embraced the dark, modernist future.

from notes by Gavin Plumley © 2011

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Details for CDA67845 track 1
Andante – Allegro molto moderato
Recording date
10 July 2010
Recording venue
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Jeremy Hayes
Recording engineer
Ben Connellan
Hyperion usage
  1. Smetana & Sibelius: String Quartets (CDA67845)
    Disc 1 Track 1
    Release date: May 2011
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