I’m not sure the world really needed another recording of the Beethoven Triple Concerto. I know it didn’t need another Fifth Symphony. Nevertheless, if we have to have them, and apparently we have no say on the subject, I cannot think of many other groups I’d more like to hear doing them than The Knights.
The Knights are a New York-based chamber ensemble, which, according to their Web site, is “an orchestra of friends from a broad spectrum of the New York music world who are deeply committed to creating original, engaging musical experiences.” Their stated goal is “to surprise audiences by constantly seeking new approaches to music-making and new exponents of the art form.” They strive “to play old music like it was written yesterday and inhabit new music in a way that’s familiar and natural.” Certainly, in the several albums I’ve heard by them (and reviewed), The Knights are accomplishing their mission.
First up on the disc is the Triple Concerto in C major for piano, violin, cello and orchestra, Op. 56, with soloists Colin Jacobsen, violin; Jan Vogler, cello; and Antti Siirala, piano; with Jacobsen’s brother and co-founder of The Knights, Eric Jacobsen, conducting. Beethoven wrote the Triple Concerto in 1804, and it has remained one of the composer’s most popular pieces ever since. It is, of course, actually a kind of orchestrated chamber trio, a sinfonia concertante where several instruments oppose the orchestra and each other, a style that had passed out of vogue by Beethoven’s time, although Beethoven was able to inject a little new life into it. I suppose you could say The Knights and their soloists also inject a little new life into the work.
Despite The Knights’ ambition to seek “new approaches” and “surprise audiences,” their music-making is not in the extreme; the ensemble’s rendition of things is not so new as to be eccentric or bizarre. Indeed, their interpretations sound lively but conventional. This is Beethoven, after all, not some avant-garde composer they can play around with too much. You’ll find no excessively exaggerated tempos here, no inflated emphases or contrasts, no wilful hyperbole or embellishment for the sake of being different.
I even hesitate using the word conventional to describe The Knights’ playing since the word may to some degree imply commonness, even mediocrity, in the performance, and nothing could be further from the truth. The Knights play with great enthusiasm and joy, communicating their delight in the music through their evident delight in the music-making.
The Knights play the Triple Concerto in a quick and lively style, but not too quick or too lively. It seems just right, as a matter of fact. The three soloists perform well with one another, too, the cello dominant, of course, the piano perhaps a trifle large but never overpowering, the violin always holding things together. The instruments dart teasingly, charmingly, in and out of the musical structure. First and foremost, this music demonstrates a friendship and a kinship among the players, the three soloists and the orchestra accommodating that happy relationship sweeting and fondly.
The Largo, which is brief anyway, the players take a bit more briskly than I might have liked. Still, they do the movement no harm, and it comes off with an appropriately serene air, leading smoothly into the exuberance of the finale.
Set against the relatively lightweight cheerfulness of the Triple Concerto, the disc’s accompanying work, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, trumpets its ominous, then gradually triumphant, notes of fate. Perhaps Beethoven wrote the piece in defiance of fate because he was beginning to recognize his loss of hearing by this time. As the composer put it, “I will seize fate by the throat. It will not crush me entirely.”
The Knights, too, attempt to seize things by the throat, imbuing it with an infectious excitement, particularly in the work’s grand conclusion. Yet it’s the performance’s opening movement that gives me pause. In a booklet note, oboist James Roe writes that “the first sound in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor is silence. This monumental work begins with an eighth-note rest. Contained in that diminutive unit of silence is the last moment of calm before fate intervenes, the last second before learning life-changing news. It is the end of innocence before Beethoven’s infamous four-note motif launches the fateful first movement.” Fair enough. The trouble is that The Knights barely give anything in the opening minutes a unit of silence or even a chance to breath, they move along so quickly. To me the outset of the symphony appeared not so much powerful, dramatic, or turbulent as it did a trifle perfunctory.
Nevertheless, once underway The Knights come into their own. Their natural spontaneity takes over, and they make the piece come alive. According to Beethoven’s own metronome markings, most recordings of the Fifth (well, most of Beethoven’s music actually) are too slow. Even though The Knights don’t attack the piece as some of the period-instruments crowd have, they do produce a fleet-footed interpretation filled with plenty of energy. The entrance into the final Allegro is thrilling, if perhaps lacking in the last bit of electricity generated by conductors like Carlos Kleiber and Fritz Reiner. All the same, not bad.
The sound is pretty good, too. Sony recorded it in New York City over several days in January, 2012, and because of the reduced orchestral size, we get a reasonably transparent midrange, complemented by a soft, warm, ambient glow from the recording venue. There’s also a good separation of soloists in the Triple Concerto and a moderately lifelike integration of them with the rest of the orchestra. While I suppose there could have been a greater depth and dimensionality to the sound and perhaps a stronger, wider dynamic response, these are minor concerns when the playing has such multidimensionality. In the Fifth, however, we get what seems a tad closer response with a greater impact.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: