Leif Ove Andsnes’ excellent all-Sibelius album is nothing short of revelatory; Borusan Quartet’s disc is creatively programmed, brilliantly played, and totally accessible.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Sibelius was, by training, a violinist, not a pianist. In fact, he spoke disparagingly of his piano music and wrote some pieces that evidently don’t sit easily for the hands. But he was prolific in his writing for the instrument, all the same, turning out a series of sonatas, bagatelles, lyric pieces, and the like. When they’re played well – and showcased sympathetically – they leave a strong impression. Such is the case with Leif Ove Andsnes’ excellent, new, all-Sibelius album, which is nothing short of revelatory.
The ten pieces represented on it span Sibelius’s whole career, from two of the six Impromptus of the early-1890s to the Five Sketches of 1929.
How they overlap with – and sometimes anticipate – developments in his tone poems and symphonies is sometimes striking. The F-sharp-minor Sonatina, for instance, is cut from the same cloth as the Fourth Symphony, marked by spare textures, quizzical phrases suddenly broken off, unexpected shifts of harmony, and the like.
Unlike Sibelius’s orchestral music, though, there are more than a few hints throughout these works of the influences of various contemporaries and others: Debussy and Chopin in the opening Impromptus, Tchaikovsky in the op. 24 Pieces, a touch of Schumann in the op. 97 Bagatelles.
But whatever these nods may suggest, the pieces are filled with Sibelius’s unmistakable touches. The op. 24 “Barcarolle,” for instance, may at times suggest a Mendelssohn gondola song, but its bravura runs and spastic shifts of mood could have come from no one else’s pen. Similarly, the opening of the “Lied im Walde” from the Five Sketches seems to echo a Debussy prelude, only to take on a bleak, Nordic character about halfway through before it simply fades away. And so on.
Throughout the disc, Andsnes plays this music with a wonderful ear for its distinctive colors and character. He clearly loves this music and believes in it. His performances are, accordingly, brimming with rhythmic energy and emotional clarity. In fact, the only real complaint one might have is that Sibelius is only a partial exploration of that composer’s keyboard music: this is a body of repertoire that really ought to be better known and widely performed. Nobody plays it better than Andsnes and a sequel can’t come soon enough.
“Company” is the subtitle of Philip Glass’s String Quartet no. 2, which was originally written to for a staged adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s eponymous prose piece. That score forms the heart of an intriguing new album of the same name by the Istanbul-based Borusan Quartet that frames the Glass with recent works for string quartet by Arvo Pärt, Hasan Uçarsu, and Peteris Vasks.
If you’re familiar with Glass’s style, there’s not much to surprise in “Company”: it comes from the same workshop as Glassworks, Satyagraha, the Violin Concerto, and other seminal scores from the ‘80s. It’s made compelling by its relative brevity (the whole piece lasts less than ten minutes), textural variety, and emotional directness.
Much of the latter is also found in the Uçarsu, which is subtitled “The Untold,” and rooted in Turkish folk music. In its first movement, rattling, earthy pizzicatos underpin an ethereal violin melody that floats overhead like a vaporous trail. The second evokes the world of the middle Bartók quartets: shattering dissonances, percussive rhythms, and tense pauses alternating to craft an episode of visceral drama. These characters are plenty abundant in the third movement, too, a bristling recollection of the annual Hidrellez festival. The finale echoes the opening movement, only this time the melodic line is given to the cello, while violins and viola weave a misty counterpoint high above.
Overall, it’s a striking piece. Parts of “The Untold” clearly owe some debts to Bartók, but they’re at least balanced out by deft touches, like as the chilly artificial harmonics at the end of the second movement and the mysteriously elegiac textures of the outer movements.
Vasks’ String Quartet no. 4 reflects on his mother’s long life and the times she lived through (he dedicated the piece to her; she turned 90 when he wrote it in 1999). It’s marked by nostalgia – from the first movement’s mournful, modal refrains to the finale’s long, concluding song – but also violence: the two toccatas channel Shostakovich, though they don’t quite explode in the same way as the older composer’s music does. At the heart of the piece comes a searing chorale.
Pärt’s 1991 arrangement of Summa (originally a choral work) rounds out the album.
Throughout, the Borusans play with warm tone, excellent ensemble, and a strong sense of musical direction. Their rhythm, too, is precise in every context: from the angular starts and stops of the Uçarsu, to the chugging patterns of the Glass, to the intense fast movements of the Vasks, they are completely locked in together. So, to sum up, we’ve got a conspicuously fine album from the Borusans: creatively programmed, brilliantly played, totally accessible – both performances and music (in all the good ways, that is). You can hardly ask for more.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.