Finnish composer Johan Julius Christian Sibelius [1865-1957] wrote four string quartets. His most famous is titled Intimate Voices, in D minor, Op. 56. Sibelius was infamous as some critics and composers denigrated many of his works but this quartet has maintained its popularity and there are at least 100 recordings available.
The quartet is in five movements, and very long. The work opens with a lone violin exploring a poignant melody. The ensemble join in to create a lush texture and soon the cello comes forward to make a strong statement with the violins accompanying. It then moves into a tempo and a positive mood. A solo violin is answered by the ensemble and then blends with it. The tempo now quickens and the violins become extremely busy. A brief pause introduces a peaceful passage, at a slow tempo and the violin reigns supreme. Soon, chords are to be heard, taking the music to completion.
The second movement is ever so short, just over two minutes. Quivering violins at tempo dominate. The music becomes almost irreverent for a time as scattered phrases are heard. The intensity returns and the violins resume their brisk tempo. Nearing the end, they just play melodic fragments and fade away.
The next movement, marked adagio, is the emotional heart of the work and begins with a graceful mood. I believe this is where we start to hear the ‘Intimate Voices’. Very measured violins produce a longing melody which lingers in the air; ascending melodies come forth and the intensity rises for the first time. We do however, still have the adagio tempo, and the graceful mood returns. This is terrific writing for strings. It advances ever so slowly and a fugal passage ensues; this is of great beauty. The violins sustain the peaceful mood with varied melodies and harmonic lines. The cello introduces a new mood, with its rich sonorities providing a perfect foil for the violins. The cello now leads the piece and provides a longing, enchanting texture which leads to the conclusion. This movement has a beauty beyond words. It has to be one of the loveliest adagios I have experienced.
The fourth movement opens in a serious mood, briefly leading to a transcendent section. Now a violin enters at a rapid tempo, overlaying the serious background. Gentle folk-like melodies are slowly brought into being and there is some interplay between the violins. The rapid tempo violin returns as the ensemble continue at their moderate tempo. A fine ascending melody brings more intensity to the ensemble and the playing is now very strong. A pause leads to some fluttering violins which turn serious and the movement ends on a lone, but forceful, cello note. This is a movement of great contrast, and it is immensely rewarding.
The final movement is at a rapid tempo, and some splendid violin interplay is developed. The ensemble bring texture, and the cello creates a dramatic undercurrent. A brief pause leads to a solo violin absolutely racing, then it is just two violins. They drop the tempo and scurry about in all possible registers. The music becomes very busy as they race through a passage. The dynamics are loud, and a feeling of measured chaos prevails. This is a strong ending to the work.
This piece deserves its place as one of the classics of the repertoire. A great deal of it is quite intimate and the adagio is worth the price of admission.
As to availability, it has been recorded by most of the major string quartets. Several 2-CD sets containing all of the composer’s four string quartets can be found but, for me, Opus 56 would be enough. Of the many versions available on Amazon US and UK, I can recommend a single CD on the BIS label, performed by the Tempera Quartet, which contains a stunning version of Intimate Voices.
Listenability: Fully deserving of its reputation as a Late Romantic classic.