by composer and music critic Mark Lehman
Though renowned for his symphonic works, Sibelius wrote a lot of chamber music too, much of it in his early career, that remains little known. This includes several piano trios from the 1880s that the young composer (an accomplished violinist) wrote to play with his brother and sister. They sound nothing like his mature masterpieces but are nevertheless charming, expertly made, and brimming over with dandy tunes, inventive but always idiomatic and transparent instrumental textures, and a youthful, high-spirited delight in music-making.
Korppoo Trio is the most ambitious and expansive of the three Sibelius trios on Yarlung’s program, coming in at 26 minutes, its fluent, melodic opening allegro interrupted on occasion by stabbing, rather Beethovenian assertions and even a clean-lined fugato at one point, though the overall form is classic in outline and clear as a bell. The second movement unfolds elaborate episodes that delve into Romantic pathos and fantasy, with striking use of high birdcalls and glassy harmonics in the violin (presumably to show off the young composer-violinist’s prowess on his instrument). A vivace rondo finale dances gaily along, bringing the trio to an exhilarating conclusion. Hafträsk Trio is warmer, more relaxed, and closer to Grieg, while the concise Lovisa Trio puts two light-hearted and celebratory allegros around a more emotive andante. All three works, especially as played con amore here by the superb Sibelius Piano Trio, will be immediately appealing to any lover of chamber music, as they most certainly are to yours truly.
The SPT fills out its program with four new works by currently active composers, three of them first recordings of commissions by the group. Each is roughly a quarter-hour long, though they vary widely in style and mood and hence give the players a chance to display their versatility and wide-ranging musicianship. Diego Schissi’s clever and engaging Nene uses soothing harmonies, delicate instrumental interplay, and intricate rhythms that bounce merrily along to create an air of insouciant activity; slower sections offset the predominant busily repeating figurations with meditative calm. David Lefkowitz’s Ruminations is a rhapsody that explores exotic melisma and nasal, at times acrid timbres (with the strings mimicking Middle Eastern winds and ouds, the piano strummed like a plucked lyre) to convey effusions both ecstatic and lamenting. More intense still, and more violent, is Kaija Saariaho’s Je sens un deuxième Coeur (“I feel a second heart”), a programmatic depiction of the inner turmoil of a pregnant woman who survives a vicious attack and discovers, to her relief, that her unborn child’s heart is still beating. Finally, there’s Lotta Wennäkoski’s Päärme, another angry fantasia, this one without the consoling resolution of Saariaho’s, driven along by a rapid mechanical pulse beneath widely disjunct piano punctuations and screechy strings that stutter, twist, and howl in torment. Not comforting stuff, but definitely enough noise to keep the wolves away.
The Sibelius Trio plays with absolute technical security and impeccable tonal polish, traversing this large expanse of musical territory without missing a step. Yarlung’s recording, is, as usual, the epitome of sonic realism. The two-disc CD release is supplemented by downloads in several hi-res formats.
–Mark Lehman, The Absolute Sound, December 2016, page 176. Mark Lehman is an excellent composer in his own right and has praised Yarlung musicians before. Lehman kindly included Antonio Lysy: Music from Argentina in The Absolute Sound’s list of the 40 finest recordings of all time. Thank you Mark!