Sibelius Piano Trio Performs "The Korppoo Trio"

Grammy award winning Yarlung Records out of Los Angeles California has been releasing classical music albums on CD, LP, and R2R tape since as far back as 2006, but they had somehow managed to escape my radar. Better late than never, as they possess all the ingredients necessary to delight readers of this website; including a dedication to minimalist analog recording techniques, and the curation of the finest up-and-coming classical talent working today. This label is run by people (primarily producer and engineer Bob Attiyeh) who care deeply about classical music, and are connected to first rate performers, particularly those who orbit the many concert halls of the greater Los Angeles area. In addition to running a record label, Yarlung also has an associated nonprofit called Yarlung Artists which focuses on getting promising new artists started on their touring career.

I mention all this because it situates Yarlung in a very unique spot in the classical recording industry. They offer a peek into the intimate world of fresh chamber music artists, the kind you may marvel at in a tiny recital hall in a major city, but are not yet recording for the big behemoths like Deutsche Grammophon, Warner, etc. At the same time, they seem to be dedicated to producing these recordings with remarkable sound, catering to the audiophile and analog lover, something other labels producing similar artists (like Naxos) never even attempt.

I spoke briefly by phone with producer Bob Attiyeh and he described his production philosophy. Unlike most modern classical recordings, which are highly digital affairs, and feature gratuitous editing, cutting, and pasting to present recordings that are “perfect” and free of any blemishes, Attiyeh records the old-school way, presenting recordings where movements are done in complete takes, and no major splicing occurs. Not that it would be an easy feat given that Yarlung primarily records with a SonoruS ATR12 analog tape recorder. Attiyeh states that this method does put a lot of pressure on the musicians to come in overprepared, and he says he has sent musicians home when he felt they weren’t polished enough for his performance standards. Most modern practitioners would engineer themselves around such problems, but for Yarlung records, the solution is always greater musicianship. Yarlung hasn’t skimped on the back end either, with mastering done Steve Hoffman (alongside Bob Attiyeh), and vinyl cutting by none other than Bernie Grundman. My records did not indicate an exact pressing plant, but the “made in Germany” marking hints at either Pallas or Optimal. Either way my pressings were flat, quiet, and centered.

The first record I sampled from the Yarlung catalog was a performance by the aptly named Sibelius Piano Trio, a musical partnership of violinist Petteri Hvonen, Cellist Samuli Peltonen, and Pianist Juho Pohjonen, all hailing from Finland and named after their country’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius. I say aptly named because this record features Sibelius’s “Korppoo Trio”, JS 209. The “Korppoo Trio” is the most seldom heard of the composer’s four piano trios as the score is unpublished and performance rights are only granted by the Sibelius Foundation in Helsinki. In fact, this performance is the first given in the western hemisphere!

The trio itself will be a treat to any fans of romantic chamber music, with long gushing lines and writing that reminds the listener of Beethoven and Brahms at their best. Sibelius as a composer had a wide breadth of style, fluctuating from the incredibly melodic and formal, to the bleak and jarring. However, this trio from 1887 was written during the composer’s youth, even before he began officially studying composition. Nevertheless, it conveys a decidedly mature understanding of his musical influences and of compositional form. Korppoo, or sometimes written as Korpo, is an island off the southern tip of Finland. In the summers of 1886 and 1887, Sibelius spent holidays on the island with his family. In 1886 he wrote the Hafträsk trio to be played with them. The following summer in 1887 he began playing with Lady Ina Wilenius, a local pianist of great skill. The result of the addition of this new talented artist was the “Korppoo Trio”, which features a far more intricate piano part than the previous work.

The playing on this particular recording is first rate, with an organic sense of pacing that makes the musical twists and turns flow naturally. In the first movement there is an excellent back and forth of melody, I especially appreciated the sensitive playing of pianist Juho Pohjonen in not only his melodic passages, but also in his keen accompaniment of the other players, a skill under-appreciated until it is noticeably absent. The second half of this movement contains a beautiful fugue, the pacing of which is carried out with an exquisite forward motion. The second movement “Fantasia Andante” gives each player a chance to shine, with broad and sensitive legato lines particularly from cellist Samuli Peltonen. The delicate violin cadenza by Petteri Iivonen at the end of the movement let me experience a moment of serene stillness as well. It’s a shame then, that perhaps the best movement of the work is broken up between sides one and two. I do appreciate the sonic benefits of cutting this record at 45rpm, but I’m not a fan of this disruption to the musical tension necessitated by changing sides in the middle of a movement. The third movement is no less impressive, and the players here exhibit an excellent amount of communication and control navigating brisk opening bars, and further bringing the piece to energetic conclusion with impressive technical control.

From a sonic perspective, this recording is a gold mine. In many ways it reminds me of my classic “Living Stereo” chamber records, with a natural string tone and three-dimensionality of instruments. The transparency was truly impressive when heard through my Harbeth 30.2 monitors, and I could almost make out the little breaths, grunts, and groans of the ensemble moving and shaping the music together. Only in some moments did I notice some minor bright patches of string tone, but this is something I notice in some select live halls as well, so it may not be the fault of the recording at all. In some other ways, this record decidedly bests my classic “shaded dogs” and Decca “wide bands”, with a fuller piano sound, and better micro-dynamics and low level details. Cutting techniques have improved a bit in the last 60 years, and dynamic range here is superb.

All-in-all, you can’t really go wrong with this release. It might not feature the most well-known work of the chamber repertoire, but the music should be a crowd-pleaser for any fans of romantic era chamber music (Brahms, Beethoven, Franck, Schubert, etc), the performance is of high artistic merit, and the sound is of a quality we almost never hear in new recordings, even from major labels. This is not only a record I highly recommend, but this is a label to keep on your radar.

Michael Johnson is a Phoenix, AZ based musician and audio writer. He plays oboe and English Horn in the Tucson Symphony, and performs regularly with other Arizona ensembles such as the Phoenix Symphony and Arizona Opera. He is a contributing writer at Audiophilia and maintains a vinyl-focused youtube channel by the name of PoetryOnPlastic. You can also follow his vinyl journey on Instagram at

mraudioguru's picture

...the exquisite and highly reviewed and loved title:

Janaki String Trio : Debut

billsf's picture

Excellent review, excellent record, excellent company. I have this and a half dozen more from Yarlung including both Janaki releases. All are stellar. I enjoy all your reviews as well. Keep up the good work.

Scully280's picture

Tape editing not an easy feat? Perhaps a forgotten art, but it's relatively straightforward to learn and doesn't require much more that an editing block, a single-edge razor and good splicing tape. As an old practitioner, I sometimes yearn that digital editing was so straight forward.

poetryonplastic's picture

You're right I should have been more specific. Yes the actual editing of tape is straightforward, what I was trying to get at is that editing this type of acoustic small scale chamber music on tape is (as far as I understand) difficult without the assistance of digital editing. At least difficult to sound natural with this type of sensitive music. These musicians weren't recorded in a booth, but rather a natural acoustic space, my guess is that it would be hard to isolate and edit-in parts and have it sound natural without all the computer tricks. But maybe someone that knows more than I about recording chamber music can correct me.

Rocco D.'s picture

I haven't been here in a while, imagine my surprise! Mr. PoetryOnPlastic himself. I've followed you on you tube for years now. Glad to see you over here! Loved the review.