Kamus Has Fun With Finnish String Quartets

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DIFFERENT VOICES / SIBELIUS: String Quartet in D min., “Voces intimae.” KAIPAINEN: String Quartet No. 7, “Batsheba.” TIENSUU: Rack / Kamus String Quartet / Alba ABCD383

This disc starts out with one of the most famous of all string quartets, Sibelius’ Voces Intimae, before moving into modern territory with the world premiere recordings of quartets by Jouni Kaipainen (1956 – ) and Jukka Tiensuu (1948 – ), so at least I had something to judge their prowess by.

The Voces Intimae receives a bracing, straightforward reading of the fast movements, similar in overall shape and design to the legendary 1933 recording by the Budapest String Quartet, made back in the day when they still had at least one Hungarian in the group. The one big difference is that the Kamus Quartet uses less vibrato; the small difference is that Kamus takes three minutes longer to get through it, but this isn’t really a detriment because of their propulsive style. The work’s title applies largely to the slow third movement, and here Kamus shows their more sensitive side with a beautifully sculpted reading that is touching without being sentimental. I was particularly impressed by their exquisitely soft playing at the 1:50 mark, a moment so easily ruined by lack of instrumental control in inferior readings. They also wisely introduce moments of rubato into their phrasing in this movement, which adds to its touching quality. Only in the fourth movement, marked “Allegretto ma pesante,” did I feel that they just missed the spirit with a slightly over-refined reading, but all in all this is a splendid performance worthy of this great music.

Since I had no liner notes with this download, I had to guess as to what the references were in the titles of Kaipainen’s and Tiensuu’s quartets. The Kaipainen work begins bitonally with slow, moody music featuring soft violin tremolos over the viola and cello, frequently interrupted by rests. A very high E is played by one of the violins as the other instruments fall in behind it, now with all four instruments playing tremolos, later with the music temporarily settling into D-flat minor. It is a piece built around mood, and the mood is dark and mournful—one might say typically Finnish—although a somewhat livelier section comes around, now in D-flat major, with pizzicato cello propelling it rhythmically. Kaipainen evidently knows what he’s doing, for the quartet develops along interesting lines, holding and retaining the listener’s interest. Eventually a long-lined cello solo takes over, with the three higher instruments alternately playing pizzicato and holding long loud notes above it. Another pause, and the viola leads the group back to the mood of the opening section. And all this in just the first 5 ½ minutes of its 13:41 length! At one point a 6/8 rhythm comes around, followed by intense downward glissandi by the upper strings, followed by strong downbow attacks. Eventually the quieter mood resumes, as the first violin plays a strange lyrical melody very high up and the others gently play around it to the finish.

Tiensuu’s Rack is more of an angular piece, starting with the two violins very high up in their range and the cello plucking notes around them. Eventually a syncopated sort of rhythm, almost folk-like, is set up; indeed, as the music “settles” in we hear intimations of folk music but this doesn’t last long. Much of the piece revolves around the playful interaction of the two top strings with pizzicato interjections from the cello and occasional long-lined commentary by the viola. You might almost call it a playful piece, although the humor in it is quite subtle at times. The tonality generally centers around D major, at least in those sections when tonality is prevalent. Long sections of sliding tonality then ensue, followed by busier (and somewhat humorous) syncopated bustling by the four instruments. It’s a weird piece, but a fascinating one. In an odd sort of way, the Kaipainen and Tiensuu works complement each other.

All in all, a fascinating album, one that draws you in and holds your attention throughout, superbly played by this talented quartet.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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