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 ( 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.

Polyhymnia International recorded 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.


No comments:

Post a Comment