the string quartet in E major is very early work, very old-fashioned, and — as you'd expect during this period of the composer's artistic maturation — pretty jejune. still, it contains a number of moments when the counterpoint points to the sort of breathless, rhythmically mind-spinning style sibelius would develop in his symphonic works... mostly during the allegro 1st movement. then, 4 years later (1889) we get the A minor quartet, which shows sibelius moving out of the mid-18th century and into the... late 18th century. here, sibelius studies the romantic forms he would later manipulate to such marvelous effect. it made an impression on busoni, apparently: "we realized that we were in the presence of something far beyond the ordinary pupil".
it's on the second disc, in the B flat quartet (written only a year after the A minor), that sibelius advances well into the... early 19th century. and more into his own, to be fair. the third movement presto is actually quite lovely, bearing some of sibelius's genius for cultivating wild euphoria out of seemingly banal sentimental tensions.
the D minor quartet, written another 20 years later between the (by now internationally famous) composer's 3rd and 4th symphonies, seems to fall from the sky onto this collection — so little it bears in common with its disc-mates; as in, there's not much chance of mistaking whose hand was at work this time. the haunting, stark lines form with confidence out of what's become sibelius's hallmark post-romantic conception, casting their enchantment at fucking 30 degrees below zero. (i think fans of morton feldman who've up to now found it hard to detect in his music any overt strain of sibelius will probably be struck by the harmonic/temporal character of the adagio di molto). it's really a goddamn shame sibelius didn't write more chamber works during his mature period, as he'd intended to; this one's quickly working its way into my innermost circle of cherished quartets. the way the lines can be so articulate and yet so massively gestural at the same time — who doesn't love that? isn't it the very essence of how we want to be (mis)understood?