Classical CD Reviews: Tesla Quartet plays Haydn, Ravel, and Stravinsky, Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Bernstein, Aspects of America

Aspects of America, from the Oregon Symphony and its music director Carlos Kalmar, is at once superbly played, astutely programmed, and aesthetically necessary.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Here’s a clever idea: pairing Ravel’s F-major String Quartet not with Debussy’s but alongside similar Classically (or neo-Classically) -minded pieces by Haydn and Stravinsky. Throw in the Tesla Quartet, and you’ve got both a winning concept and some superb performances.

Indeed, the Teslas offer a sparkling account of Ravel’s Quartet. Its first movement’s tranquil lyricism floats (the second subject, in particular, is played with a conspicuously glassy tone). In the second movement, the outer thirds dance with terrific energy and clarity, while the subdued middle section breathes a tender warmth. The third is marked by diaphanous, shifting textures and the finale wraps everything up with slashing attacks and a strong sense of musical direction.

Haydn’s C-major Quartet (op. 54 no. 2) receives a similarly delicate and light-on-its feet performance, the ensemble’s intonation spot-on, and their exchanges of the music’s lines seamlessly executed. At its heart lies a glowing reading of the short, melancholy, second movement, which seems to anticipate Beethoven in its expressive clarity.

The Stravinsky Concertino dates from 1920 and veers towards the composer’s more acerbic manner, though hints of where would head, stylistically, throughout that decade peek through. Here, the Teslas revel in the score’s shifting meters and biting dissonances, playing with soul and a strong grasp of the music’s unbridled nature.

Rounding out the disc are three Ravel minuet arrangements (the Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn, Menuet antique, and Menuet in C-sharp minor), all of which are dispatched with graceful vim.

Aria and Barcarolles is one of Leonard Bernstein’s least-performed and -recorded major scores. A thirty-plus-minute long meditation on the complexities of human relationships (mostly set to Bernstein’s own texts), it exists in three versions: the original, for two singers and piano-four-hands; a 1989 orchestration for two singers, strings, and percussion by Bright Sheng; and Bruce Coughlin’s 1993 expansion for two singers and full orchestra.

Michael Tilson Thomas was, with Bernstein, the other pianist in Aria and Barcarolles’ 1988 premiere, and he recorded the Coughlin version with the London Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon in the early ‘90s. He conducts it again with his San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (SFSO) in a new release, the score’s first in over twenty years – and just the work’s fourth overall – for the ensemble’s in-house label, SFS Media.

On the whole, the orchestral playing in the new recording has a brighter edge than you hear on the London album. As a result, the mood of this performance is a bit more electrifying (it helps, too, that it’s drawn from live tapings, not a studio session). The San Francisco players have Bernstein’s sometimes-brooding late style well within hand and MTT, who’s now somehow older than Bernstein was when he wrote the piece, knows how to get it to dance. No surprises there, then.

The singing is always satisfactory and sometimes inspired.

Ryan McKinney is a lighter-toned baritone than Thomas Hampson was in 1993 and his contributions are, correspondingly, a bit less weighty. That said, his two solos – “The Love of My Life” and “Oif Mayn Khas’neh” – offer striking contrasts of character brought about largely through shading the colors of his voice.

Soprano Isobel Leonard brings a combination of simplicity and intensity to “Little Smary” (the tale of a child losing her toy only for it to reappear, miraculously, on her toy shelf) and ethereal beauty to “Greeting” (a reflection on the wonder of birth).

The pair’s duets take some time to settle, especially in comparison to the natural rapport between Hampson and Frederica von Stade in MTT’s earlier recording. But their last two – “Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight” and the wordless “Nachspiel” – are particularly affecting. The finale, in fact, is sublime: tender, nostalgic, poignant.

MTT provides a reminiscence about Arias and Barcarolles’ origins in an short essay that’s worthy of the price of admission all by itself and James Keller’s expansive notes on the piece are deeply informative.

Aspects of America, the newest album from the Oregon Symphony and its music director Carlos Kalmar, is at once superbly played, astutely programmed, and aesthetically necessary. It covers just over sixty-five years of music – the earliest piece, Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs, dates from 1952 – but is made up of premiere (or near-premiere) recordings of most of its selections.

The first of those is Sean Shepherd’s Magiya. Written in 2013 for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States, it draws heavily on the influence of Russian music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and others, as well as Russian folklore (the title is the Russian word for “magic”). The result is a spirited, blazingly colorful, seven-minute overture that brims with striking gestures and elegant musical ideas dressed up in a brilliant orchestration and never overstaying its welcome.

Similarly direct is Sebastian Currier’s Microsymph. A twelve-minute condensation of the symphonic genre, Microsymph is made up of five motivically-related movements that run the gamut from weighty to frolicsome. At its heart lies a broad, searching Adagio that provides the score its emotional anchor.

Like that Adagio, Christopher Rouse’s Supplica forms the larger album’s expressive center. A fourteen-minute long orchestral meditation for a reduced ensemble of strings, brass, and harp, it shimmers uneasily for much of its duration, releasing its pent-up energy over a series of purgative climaxes.

Following the Rouse comes Kenji Bunch’s Aspects of an Elephant, a 2017 Oregon Symphony commission. Essentially a concerto for orchestra, Aspects adapts the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant to provide a dramatic/narrative device to deftly showcase the ensemble.

And Barber’s Souvenirs, a collection of early-20th century popular dance forms, rounds out the disc.

Throughout, Kalmar leads the Oregon players in performances that are both vigorous and heartfelt. The Rouse, in particular, draws some of the ensemble’s most intense playing, while Magiya and Microsymph impressively display the orchestra’s technical versatility.

As a piece, the Bunch has its impressive moments – the writing for muted brass and percussion in the second variation is striking, as are the low-string-and-English horn textures in the fourth, and the dovetailing lines of the fifth – and, if the finale’s diatonic resolution is a bit predictable, its triumph is at least honestly won. The Barber charms, as it should: Kalmar’s got its style and language completely under control and his orchestra plays its lilting dances (especially the opening waltz) beautifully.

A great disc, then, very highly recommended.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.


  1. Deborah Crawford on August 29, 2018 at 6:50 am

    Love TESLA!
    If you have heard their recording, then you have experienced HALF their talent. The rest is in watching them play — their “sport”. Their visual performances are athletic.

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