GRIEG; THOMMESSEN; SIBELIUS String Quartets
The quiet E minor chords that give Sibelius’s Voces intimae its nickname occur a minute and a half into the third movement of this new recording by the Engegård Quartet. As Sibelius directs, the four players drop to a whisper; but the Engegårds’ cellist Jan Clemens Carlsen leans ever so slightly on his own double-stopped chord. It’s just enough to darken the sound, to shift its emphasis. Five minutes later, in the movement’s closing bars, the chords return; this time, though, it’s the leader Arvid Engegård who brings out his line – and, in the subtlest possible way, suggests the distance that’s been travelled since that first mysterious interruption.
It’s a detail, but one that I think gets to the heart of this fine Norwegian quartet’s approach to both major works on this disc. The Engegårds’ ensemble sound is characterful and lit from within by Carlsen and viola player Juliet Jopling. Their performances – lucidly captured by the BIS engineers – live in the moment: they’re colourful, fluently paced and feel entirely spontaneous. But the more you listen to them the more you begin to sense the intelligence and refinement, as well as the freshness, of these readings. To take another example, the droll little portamentos in Grieg’s Intermezzo become great uproarious whoops in the movement’s unbuttoned central section. The way has been prepared: it makes both expressive and structural sense.
Both these works create their own emotional atmosphere, and the Engegårds bring something of themselves to each – more up-front than the Coull Quartet in the Sibelius, more fiery in the Grieg than the Vertavo Quartet. They also include the first recording of Felix Remix, a Mendelssohn-inspired scherzo written for them by Olav Anton Thommessen and played at high voltage with crystalline precision. Quartet aficionados won’t want to part with the Budapest Quartet – but those seeking the Grieg/Sibelius pairing in modern sound would be hard pressed to find better.