Water Drops – Early Chamber Music

This second (and final) installment begins with the very appealing Suite for Violin and Piano in E major (1888), comprising five movements played attacca. As the key suggests, it opens with a sunny and attractive Allegro molto, with two beautiful subjects. In this work, the piano mostly accompanies, while the violin, here beautifully and naturally played by the young Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (b.1976), even sports a short cadenza in the quasi adagio. Another two-minute Allegro molto is followed by a tender Lento quasi andantino of the “park-strolling” variety I so love. The Suite ends with a spirited Allegro Brillante.

Kuusisto and Kerppo play this Romantic work as if they have known it all their lives. Their natural flow and sense of ease bring an appealing unpretentiousness to the Suite’s lyricism. This allows me to add, again in Sibelius’ defence, that this is not to be considered an “immature” work as fools suggest. They are simply pieces of music that form a different phase in an artist’s life – in this case, his youth.

Jean, Linda and Christian Sibelius
Jean, Linda and Christian Sibelius

The Piano Trio in C (1888) was composed for the Sibelius family trio, consisting of Jean, his brother Christian and sister Linda. It is nicknamed the “Lovisa Trio” after its place of birth. The first movement, Allegro, is predominantly bright and bold, displaying (according to the notes), march-like themes which were to occupy Sibelius’ music in the 1890s. I particularly enjoy this movement, especially as delivered here in bright and forward atmosphere by the performers. A dreamy Andante follows, and then the confident and cheery Allegro con brio.

The 5½-minute Fugue for Martin Wegelius (derived from Sibelius’ title “Fuga for Martin W”) was understandably thought by scholars as a piece for the composer’s teacher, but turned out to be a sketch for the finale of his (Sibelius’) A minor String Quartet. A powerfully wrought sketch this is, dark-toned but energetic in its unrelenting momentum, all adding to a distinct sense of progressive development – as a fugue should be.

The quiet musings of the Duo in C major (?1891-2, or as Sibelius noted “1886?”) is almost startling in its relaxed concentration. For an unbroken 5½ minutes, the lullabying duet of violin and cello converse quietly in a fine example of concentrated music which does not tax the mind.

The 11-minute Adagio in D minor (1890) is believed to have been originally intended to be the slow movement of Sibelius’ B major String Quartet. With its shifting harmonies, interweaving lines and overall sense of organic movement and fusion, it already shows the hallmarks of Sibelius’ later styles. In it one can hear the embryonic ghosts of the Rakastava Suite (1893, orch. 1911) as well as the melancholia of so many of the composer’s slow symphonic movements. It is emotional in character, yes, but I also hear something decidedly more calculated, more “architectural” than pure/lyric Romanticism. This perhaps is the mark which distinguishes Sibelius as more than just a “Romantic” – it is only the beginning for one of the 20th century’s greatest symphonic thinkers.

Sibelius in his garden
The elderly Sibelius in his garden

Even as a boy, Sibelius immersed himself in the embrace of nature, chasing butterflies through the grass, taking frequent nature walks and “explaining” to his friends the sprites, goblins and other fairy creatures that live in the forests. Gifted with perfect pitch, Sibelius could even tell exactly what notes the birds were singing.

At around age 10, he composed his first piece of music, Vattendroppar or “Water Drops”, scored for violin and cello pizzicato. Remarkably for a kid’s first work, it is in a minor key.

All praise to Ondine for possessing the ironic sense to place this – the first utterance of a great composer – at the end of this survey of Sibelius’ early chamber music. This tiny 44-second work humbly hints of and ultimately signifies the tremendous future of Mother Nature’s greatest tone-poet:

It is snowing outside – but spring is already showing its face. Nature is coming to life: that life which I so love, now and always, whose essence shall pervade everything which I compose.

Suite in E major for Violin and Piano
Adagio in D minor
Fugue for Martin Wegelius
Duo in C major for Violin and Viola
Piano Trio in C major, “Lovisa”
“Water Drops” for Violin and Cello
Suite in E: Pekka Kuusisto violin · Raija Kerppo piano
Other pieces: Jean Sibelius Quartet
Yoshiko Arai · Jukka Pohjola violins · Matti Hirvikangas viola
Seppo Kimanen cello · with Juhani Lagerspetz piano (Lovisa Trio)

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

Review of Volume One

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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