Early Sibelius is still Sibelius

Sibelius’ early works (pre-Kullervo/1892) remain largely unfamiliar to the public. The reason for this, and why the works in Ondine’s survey of Sibelius’ early chamber works include many world premiere recordings is because until 1982, the Sibelius family estate forbade the performance and publication of the music. (Sibelius himself, self-critical as always, would have been happy about this, I think). But now, the music has been donated to the Helsinki University Library, and has been mostly published by Fazer Music, Finland.

That these have lain unknown for so long is a great pity. I don’t know if Sibelius will be offended by our digging through his legacy’s secret compartments, but really, the music proves it worth. Though I am a Sibelius fanatic, that should not unfairly hamper my judgment here. Why? Because these chamber pieces are not only rich in melody and expression, but are very likely even more palatable to the general listener compared to some of the heavyweights such as the Fourth Symphony or Tapiola.

Let’s get straight to the music. This first volume of Ondine’s survey of Sibelius’ early chamber music begins with the 23-minute, three-movement Violin Sonata in F minor, completed in 1889. The notes compare it to the Violin Sonatas of Grieg (ah – another set of beautiful Nordic chamber gems) and speak of its Romantic appeal. The two players here stride boldly through the work, launching the listener into a thoroughly enjoyable torrent of melody, all the way to the absolutely stunning final passage of the last movement. They display an almost surprising familiarity with the Sonata, nudging the phrases here and there, pushing the rhythm ever so musically. The moving violin tunes over rippling piano are an unabashed delight.

There is very little here that strongly hints of the mature Sibelius – but why should there be?? This is the composer in his youth – and he must have surely reveled in all his experiences of joy, pain, love, sorrow… If anyone ever called Sibelius a Romantic, here that label is 100% justified with much satisfaction!

The 12-minute Suite for String Trio in A major had already received praise from Ferruccio Busoni on its premiere on 13 April 1889: “We sharpened our concentration as we realised that we were about to hear something quite beyond the usual standard for student works…”

Unfortunately, only the first three movements of this five-movement affair have survived. The fifth movement gigue is only partly intact (no violin part) and the performers here give it to us anyway in a reconstruction. It is a hectic affair, rather un-gigue-like actually, but ends boldly.

The Suite is both intimate and lyrical, mixed with a nervous tension that occasionally erupts. These qualities are keenly brought out by the trio, who are members of the New Helsinki Quartet. The second movement, the Andante con moto begins quietly and pensively, in Sibelius’ meditative mood. (Think Rakastava, or the slow movement of Symphony No.3).

The angst-ridden String Trio in G minor has a rather complicated history, but begins to demonstrate many of the composer’s mature techniques. The notes describe how Sibelius combined the forms of the Lied (song), sonata and continuous variation, which naturally brings to mind the organic development technique which culminated in the one-movement Seventh Symphony.

Jean Sibelius (1894) - detail from a watercolour by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Jean Sibelius (1894) - detail from a watercolour by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Again (and I’m sorry to say), only the first movement Lento survives intact – though this is a large 7½-minute affair that does seem to combine elements of Romantic emotionalism with a distinctive tone and style that is starting to “sound” modern. Though I found the initial portions hard listening, the way the movement gains momentum and develops into clarity is evident.

Hearing the remnant of the Allegro – a mere 45 seconds – only makes me wish it had survived. For starters, within three phrases, Sibelius modulates with surprising naturalness from major to minor key. As if matching Sibelius at his own game, this “mock-up” reconstruction of the score literally joins the Allegro to the final movement. If there were no track indications on my CD player, I wouldn’t have noticed! But listen carefully to this remnant – at 3’21” it has a lot of interesting things to say.

The last piece here is an 11-minute Piano Quartet in C minor (for piano, two violins and cello). It takes the form of an introductory Adagio of dark symphonic proportions, followed by a noble and gentle Andantino exposition of the “Theme”, which then undergoes seven fascinating variations all sharing the same harmonic progression. The Quartet ends with a 25-second conclusion in Tempo Primo. This piece, also known as the Piano Quartet in C major, first came about in 1891 when it was sent as a theme and seven variations for piano to his future wife, Aino Järnefelt. It was rearranged in this final form and completed on 15 April 1891. One year and two weeks later, the mighty Kullervo Symphony blasted Finland into her modern musical era.

Sonata for Violin and Piano in F major
Ernst Kovacic (violin) · Juhani Lagerspetz (piano)

Suite for String Trio in A major
String Trio in G minor

Jan Söderblom (violin) · Ilari Angervo (viola) · Jan-Erik Gutafsson (cello)

Quartet in C minor for Piano, Two Violins and Cello
Viatcheslav Novikov (piano) · Massimo Quarta, Ilaria Miori (violins) · Martti Rousi (cello)

ONDINE Records ODE 826-2
[58:22] full-price

Review of Volume Two

The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase also eats peanuts, cashews (which are not nuts), green peas and other little crunchy things.

Published by


Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

One thought on “Early Sibelius is still Sibelius”

  1. OK, nowadays it is the in-thing for any Sibelius fan to defend the composer’s early works. So bear with me while I coat my cyberpen with some dripping poison… If this does not interest you, you need not read on.

    Some snobbish “Sibelius scholars” are still incapable of appreciating the simple joy of a young composer expressing his youthful experiences in “simple music”. Instead, these “experts” brush off these pieces by saying things like “Oh, these early works are uncharacteristic of Sibelius and display little of the mature composer.” Huh? If Sibelius composed it, how can it be “uncharacteristic”? If the notes (and if you believe me, my own instincts) point out the ample evidence of Sibelius’ maturing art, what are these “experts” trying to do undermining the music’s worth? Indeed, what on earth is a Sibelius “expert” doing openly demeaning Sibelius’ works at all?

    The explanation seems logical: such commentators are only interested in their oh-so-intellectual opinions on the high-brow elements of the mature Sibelius; but anything which does not satisfy their intellectual greed is considered “inferior” and beneath them. They not only believe that a composer’s early and “immature” works are detrimental to public appreciation, but worse, cannot accept that even a genius is a human being with different ways of self-expression. This only speaks of their arrogance over being deemed “Sibelius experts”. They have their own agenda regarding who or what Sibelius should be, and therefore do not really respect the composer for who he is.

    It’s their loss. And this is just my opinion – whatever you have been told about these pieces, even by me, at least listen to them before you make any judgment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *