Beethoven: Triple Concerto (CD review)

Also, Symphony No. 5. Colin Jacobsen, violin; Jan Vogler, cello; Antti Siirala, piano; Eric Jacobsen, The Knights. Sony Classical 88725471762.

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:


JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa