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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Tesla Quartet, Haydn, Ravel, Stravinsky

If you want to feel time passing, to feel change in musical performance practice, listen to typical chamber music artists circa 1950 versus today. There can be much less schmaltz to be heard now, less of the mawkish fervor of Hothouse Romanticism and more musically precise note weaving, excitement and passion without resort to the verklempt. Well compare the wonderful but at times decidedly dated Budapest Quartet from those days doing the Ravel Quartet versus the new, present-day Tesla Quartet, who includes the work on their inaugural release Haydn, Ravel, Stravinsky (Orchid Classics 100085). You find a less over-the-top passion with Tesla's reading. The vibrato is still there but not sounding the least bit feverish, there is clarity and matter-of-factness the great depth of this work demands. I could go on but I think that gives you the idea of what I hear and like as a starting thought.

And really it all is part of a trend in sound and emotions in music. Listen to some of the "Sweet Bands" in US pop from 1920-1950 and you might hear some incredibly dated timbral heart-stringing. We do not hear things that way anymore, so that even Rachmaninoff we sound with a bit more reserve than maybe was expected a while ago? (On the other hand listen to Ben Webster's tenor sax in his later years on a ballad if you want to hear the art that could spawn from the sentiment so present in music worlds then).

Tesla is a group of younger folks (younger than I am anyway!). They have spent ten years together, ten years of concertizing, communing but perhaps wisely not-yet recording. After ten years they are well seasoned and for this inaugural recording they turn to works they have worked into a fine fettle. The choice of pieces in the audio program work together very well in establishing the brilliance of the group, their care and attention to timbral beauty and blended focus. The results are pretty stunning.

The Ravel "String Quartet in F Major" has such an abundance of a Modern, tempered beauty we surely must rank it at the very top of quartets written last century. Tesla give us a version I cannot imagined being topped and perhaps it has taken us this long to get it perfectly right because that is the way musical time goes? There is deep subtlety in the reading here. Tenderness and hush, boisterous exuberance, richly evocative sound color like lightning bugs at dusk in midsummer, a woody warmth unfeigned and sincere. It balances feeling and cerebral impact as nicely as I have heard out there. Tesla seems born to this music.

A change of pace hits us happily with Haydn's C Major Quartet, Op. 54, No. 2. As Tesla  mentions in the liners, Haydn has played an important role in the first decade of the ensemble's life, with every season involving a performance of at least one of the 41 quartets he left for us. You can hear the sympathy and care that goes into this recording. The reading is lush, lyrical and extraordinarily memorable. They read Haydn with an interpretive brilliance you no doubt do not hear quite like this elsewhere. It is as if they are recalling the beauty of the work as they are performing it, and so we get a reflection of the music in its shining forth, a rare thing and a true musical blessing in many ways. I would love it if Tesla were to record the entire Haydn cycle, but perhaps later on for that?

Tesla features three Ravel minuets that have been nicely arranged for quartet by Tesla violinist Ross Snyder from the original piano parts. The "Menuet antique" rings out especially well but all three are a happy addition to the program. My mom especially loved the "antique" Ravel piece and played a recording of it very often around the house. She would have been very happy to hear this version, no doubt.

The final touch to the musical sequence is a meticulous and very sympathetic reading of Stravinsky's all-to-brief "Concertino for String Quartet." It forms the capstone to a really delightful monument to the state-of-the-art in Modern quartet performance practices.

The Tesla Quartet on the basis of this worthy CD seems to me to be at the very top of the hill in terms of new chamber performance today. Any with the inclination to check this album out should not hesitate. In it a big WOW to me and I cannot doubt that most will feel like I do after a few hearings. The Ravel is primo and the rest of the program is a further confirmation that we are in a special place with these fine players. Highly recommended.

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