The Knights: A Second of Silence (SACD review)

Music of Schubert, Glass, Feldman, and Satie. Erik Jacobsen, The Knights. Ancalagon ANC 137.

"That kind of hovering, as if you're in a register you've never heard." --Morton Feldman

If you can't quite place who The Knights are, you may remember them from their award-winning 2010 album of Mozart violin concertos with Scott and Lara St. John (http://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2010/08/mozart-sinfonia-concertante-sacd-review.html). They are a small chamber ensemble of about three dozen players, led by co-Artistic Directors Colin and Eric Jacobsen and conducted by Eric Jacobsen. They're a lively group of musicians, and on the present album they offer a unique point of view.

A Second of Silence is a theme album from The Knights. The idea is to present music that evokes to some degree the "kind of hovering" mentioned by composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) above, the kind of tranquility offered not just by the notes of the music but by the silences, the quiet moments, between the notes and at the end of a piece. And The Knights juxtapose their choices of material from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries just to prove their point.

They begin with Gymnopedie No. 1 by Erik Satie (1866-1937), a French Impressionist ahead of his time whose music predated minimalism and other such movements. In his Gymnopedies he created quiet little works that demonstrate the album's point. The booklet note suggests they are examples of tranquillity drifting toward stillness. Fair enough, and The Knights perform them accordingly.

Next is Company, a four-movement work by American composer Philip Glass (b. 1937) originally written for string quartet and here arranged for chamber orchestra. The point is to compare and contrast Glass's twentieth-century minimalism with the earlier nineteenth-century Classical-Romanticism of Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) in several pieces that follow it: Gretchen am Spinnrade, Symphonies Nos. 3 and 8, and Des Baches Wiegenlied ("The Brook's Lullaby"). There are some striking similarities.

But the real question is whether any of this familiar music is any better executed by Erik Jacobsen and The Knights than on many other recordings of it. The answer rests on the high quality of the performances, which are flexible, precise, virtuosic, and refined, Jacobsen leading the group with a deft hand. So, yes, The Knights perform the music quite well, the orchestral sounds floating lightly around us, with the sudden bursts of enthusiasm the composers intended made the more startling and expressive for the clarity and accuracy of the ensemble's playing. The Knights emphasize not only the music's brief silences but the dynamics and phrasing in them as well. To my ears, The Knights sound most closely like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and that's about the highest compliment I can offer them.

The performance of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, for instance, is as ethereal as I've ever heard it and No. 3 as sprightly, energetic, and furiously lilting as you'll find, so beyond any significance the group is trying to impress upon us in the album, their renditions of the music are among the best available.

Interrupting the two Schubert symphonies is Satie's Gymnopedie No. 2, another magical little pause unto itself. And following that is a further tiny piece, this one by Morton Feldman called Madam Press Died Last Night at Ninety. It's in the same minimalist-modern vein as the earlier Glass piece, if quieter.

There is no doubt Jacobsen and The Knights perform all of the music on the disc in high fashion, and whether you appreciate the disc's thematic ideas or not, the interpretations and playing are first rate and probably warrant a listen.

Engineer Jeremy Tusz of Diapason recorded, edited, and mixed the disc for Ancalagon at the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Concert Hall, Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, Flushing, New York from June 23-25, 2010. Made in both two-channel stereo (to which I listened on a Sony SACD player) and multichannel surround and presented on a hybrid, dual-format SACD, the sound is clear and dynamic yet warm and smooth, too.

The sonics are wonderfully immersive, with great washes of sound caressing the ear in a most-welcome and realistic manner. Even without rear speakers, one can feel a splendidly ambient surround effect. The overall aural picture is a tad soft, while having excellent transient response and tautness, making for a most natural and enjoyable listening experience.

One minor criticism, though: Because The Knights are not (yet) a household name and because the album title goes nowhere in telling potential buyers what it's all about, I suspect the producers may have shortchanged themselves. I mean, Is this Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" here? Who would know that it contains primarily Schubert and others or that The Knights are a chamber ensemble? And the bizarrely surreal cover picture doesn't help. But what do I know? It'll probably sell a million copies.

JJP

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post, I agree with your last comment about the title giving no information, so was glad to read this - So far I like what I hear - but if not for Spotify I would never have had the opportunity to listen.

    ReplyDelete
  2. And thank you for your feedback, Kate. I guess one way or the other, you're enjoying the music, and that's the important thing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I also discovered this via spotify

    ReplyDelete

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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