As you probably know if you've been following the classical music scene this past decade, The Knights are a New York-based chamber orchestra, formed in the late Nineties by brothers Eric and Colin Jacobsen. They began by holding informal chamber-music sessions in their home, inviting friends to share performances with them of new and historical music. Even as their public performances increased and the group grew in size to almost three dozen members (flexible according to need from about a dozen to the full complement), they have retained their original collaborative spirit. According to their Web site, the ensemble's name symbolizes their unceasing quest for searching out things bold and true in the music they play.
The group's Artistic Director, Colin Jacobsen, describes the present album, The Ground Beneath Our Feet, as "a celebration of the concerto grosso, a musical conversation in which two or more instruments are invited to lead a dialogue with the larger whole.... By revisiting the concerto grosso today, we explore the amalgamation of personalities and perspectives that is The Knights, with individual voices coming to the fore throughout the album." Accordingly, the album offers something old (Stravinsky), something very old (Bach), something new (Reich), and something very new (Jacobsen, Aghaei, and The Knights), all of them concertos in their own way.
The more I hear from The Knights, the more I like them. In fact, along with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, The Knights have become one of my favorite American chamber orchestras. They play with a lively precision that always invigorates any music they're performing, and they never seem to stray from the central intent of the score. The selections on this disc are good examples of what I mean.
First up on the program is something new, the Duet for Two Violins and Strings by Steve Reich (b. 1936), with Ariana Kim and Guillaume Pirard, violins. Reich wrote the piece in 1993 and dedicated it to Yuhudi Menuhin. The Knights handle Reich's gently soaring lyricism gently and, well, soaringly. The music and the interpretation enjoy a simplicity and grace that make it a pleasure to return to time and again.
After that is something less old, the Concerto in E-flat "Dumbarton Oaks" by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Stravinsky named his concerto after the historic estate on which The Knights made this recording. The composer was in one of his newer-older moods when he wrote it in 1937, and most of it, inspired by Bach, is rather playful. The Knights seem intent on pointing up this playfulness throughout, and their performance is appropriately joyous. What's more, it's remarkable how effortlessly they can transition from one era in music to another.
Then, we get two pieces that are fairly new. The first of these is the Concerto for Santur, Violin and Orchestra by Colin Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei. The santur is an ancient instrument, a stringed, hammered dulcimer of Babylonian origin, and here it makes a fine counterpoint to the previous violin concertos. Nevertheless, like them, it produces a sweet, flowing sound, and the rhythms of the music, premiered in 2013, agree with it nicely. When the violin and accompanying strings join in, they produce a most agreeable arrangement.
The final piece is The Ground Beneath Our Feet, written collectively by The Knights. As we might expect from such a collaborative work, the music appears more improvisational than the rest. Jacobsen says that it should sound different each time people play it, so it has a flexible, malleable nature to its moods, tempos, dynamics, stresses, patterns, and tones. There are some interesting Irish, Scottish, and Gypsy inflections in the piece that are fun, as are some closing vocals by Christina Courtin. The Knights are a talented group all the way around.
Like a lot of albums these days, too many for me, this one is a live recording. I suppose it's the most economical way to make records anymore, but it does no favors to the sound. Anyway, producer Jesse Lewis and engineers Jesse Brayman and Jesse Lewis recorded the music live at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC in October 2013.
The miking is a little closer than I would have liked, but I suppose that's the consequence of having to record live and minimize audience noise. The violins seem a tad bright and the whole image a bit too forward for my taste. Still, taste differs, and other listeners may find the sound exactly to their liking. It's certainly clear and detailed, with a realistic dimensionality and a modest touch of acoustic resonance to add to the warmth and flavor of the presentation.
However, I really, really could have done without the applause, which follows each item.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: