Intimate Voices: Sibelius String Quartets

Flinders Quartet
ABC 481 1982
Reviewed by , April 1st, 2016

“The Flinders Quartet offers beautiful readings of Sibelius’ masterful D minor quartet and the early breakthrough work in A minor.”

It has been hard to get any traction but every so often I throw out on social media that Victoria should secede. I mean, the state’s economy is doing well, we have a variety of stunning landscapes, great primary produce, an elegant capital city with a wonderful cultural life and terrific food. We could be the Finland of the South Seas. We have a similar-sized population in a comparable if slightly smaller area; why not have a world-beating public education system, a musical culture that reveres its great conductors and composers, and about 350 annual arts festivals?

Flinders Quartet

Flinders Quartet

Not that we do too badly, and it was a matter of some pride that that the Flinders Quartet (certainly a group of eminent Victorians) was invited to perform the complete quartet-based chamber music of Sibelius in 2015 at a festival in his homeland. That the performances were warmly received comes as no surprise listening to this recent release, which the quartet must have finished recording minutes before rushing off to Tullamarine Airport.

The D minor quartet, Op.56, whose subtitle gives the CD its title, is the only chamber work of Sibelius that, so far, has had repertoire status, and indeed is the only chamber work of his maturity. It dates from 1909, so is written in the wake of the Third Symphony. Despite enjoying some success as a composer – his music was starting to be held up, in the Anglosphere in particular – as a counter to the neuroses of nasty modern music, by 1908 he was in financial difficulties owing to severe alcoholism; moreover he developed a tumour in the throat which, given that he was an enthusiastic cigar-smoker, he was convinced was cancer. In the event he underwent over ten bouts of surgery to remove the growth and for some time at least gave up smoking and drinking. He was hounded by thoughts of mortality, made worse by his sister’s worsening mental illness. In five movements, it might be a kind of ‘dark double’ to Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 132 – the convalescent hasn’t yet found reason for a holy song of thanksgiving. This might account for the overall tone of the work, but as we know from the much discussed conversation between Sibelius and Mahler in 1907, Sibelius stressed the need for ‘severity of style and profound logic’ in composition, and the D minor quartet is also ground-breaking in terms of his technique.

Recorded in the grateful acoustic of Melbourne’s Wyselaskie Auditorium by veteran producer Stephen Snelleman, the Flinders’ is a terrific account of the work’s overall architecture and internal drama. The inexorable motion of the opening movement, for instance, is compelling in its trajectory from the deceptively simple antiphony of the opening phrases to the rich thrumming of the fully-scored chords at the close. The shimmering energy of the Vivace second movement shows the players’ familiarity with the manner of the middle period symphonies and the Adagio di molto has just the right amount of pathos, dramatically withdrawing warmth, colour and force for the three mysterious chords that Sibelius described as the ‘intimate voices’ of the subtitle. The Allegretto (ma pesante) balances an appropriately rough folkishness with some luminous and delicate tracery and distant, humming chords. The finale is almost symphonic in a typically Sibelian way, with paradoxically immobile passages of intense activity hiding a slower but unstoppable tectonic movement; this rendition allows one to sense those layers and appreciate the shifts from ethereal to earthy.

Sibelius’ other music for quartet dates from his youth, and includes the A minor work of 1889 included here. It is customary for the reviewer at this point to name-check the various composers whose influence can be heard but they will be self-evident and unsurprising; we may, by contrast, feel there is a certain amount of wishful thinking in a contemporary review that argued that with this work Sibelius placed himself ‘foremost among those entrusted with bearing the banner of Finnish music’. It is the work of a young, but by now experienced, quartet player (Sibelius had a regular gig as a second violinist) so is wonderfully imagined for the ensemble, and more than satisfyingly well-crafted, if not with severity and profound logic, in the development of its material. Its solid musical joinery doesn’t preclude moments of great beauty in the motivic play of the opening movement, the lyricism of the second, the quiet, otherworldly episode that momentarily interrupts the scherzo, and the play of vibrant contrasts that drives the finale. It certainly marks a new phase in Sibelius’ development and points to several aspects of his mature style.

The Flinders Quartet gives the work an absolutely committed and convincing reading. I’m not surprised that the Finns were impressed, and imagine that they are grateful to have such advocacy of both little-known and canonical works by their iconic composer.

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