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The Knights
Second of Silence
Gymnopedies 1 and 2 Phillip Glass
Company Morton Feldman
Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety Franz Schubert (arr. Ljova)
Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, Op. 2, D. 118 Franz Schubert (arr. Colin Jacobson)
The Brook's Lullaby from Die Schone Mullerin, Op. 25, D. 795 Franz Schubert
Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 200; Symphony No. 8 in B minor ("Unfinished"), D. 759
Eric Jacobson conducting The Knights Chamber Orchestra
 
Review By Joe Milicia

 

  Judging from both the pictures included in the accompanying booklet and their several postings on YouTube, the Knights are a very young-looking chamber orchestra of 40 or so players.  I thoroughly enjoyed their last release that featured exhilarating, irresistible performances of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante and Violin Concertos 1 and 3 with Lara St. John as soloist. But I was more than a little taken back by this follow-up. Certainly anyone expecting (or hoping) for further exploration of the classical repertory will be well flummoxed by the program here.

In fact, when I first opened the CD cover, the set-list produced a double take worthy of Lou Costello. What did Eric Satie, Phillip Glass, Franz Schubert, and Morton Feldman all have in common? Damned if I knew. When I turned to Dr. James Seymour Helgeson's program notes for enlightenment, I learned that a kind of "hovering, as if you're in a register you've never heard" was the connecting tissue here: "these pieces…are not merely tranquil -- quiet meditations are frequently interrupted by violent gesture- - -but dissolution into silence remains their ultimate object. Listeners are confronted with the contradiction between; on the one hand, progress toward resolution, and, on the other, a relentless procession of repeated rhythms and figures." Interestingly, after Hegelson spells out some of the particular resemblances between individual pieces, he concludes on a philosophical note, quoting Samuel Beckett: "a voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine. To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional allusion to a present and more rarely a future."

The Beckett connection is not entirely fortuitous. The Glass piece was written to accompany a Beckett text of the same name (and from which the above quote is taken). Given that Schubert's The Brook's Lullaby (here transcribed for strings) concerns " a brook that seduces a boy into drowning himself," that Feldman's short, elegiac piece was written in memory of one of his teachers, that the Unfinished Symphony is a dark, if not death-shrouded work, I concluded that the central theme here was death itself, the ultimate "dissolution into silence." Well, if that was the case, what the hell was Schubert's bumptious, kinetic, life-affirming Third Symphony doing here? Or the transcription of Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel? Or Satie's dream-like Gymnopedies?

In the end, I gave up asking, "What does it all mean?" This is a question that's never done much for me in any case. Besides, interested listeners can tease out the musicological (or existential) issues for themselves. As a reviewer, I feel compelled to address a more basic question: "How does it sound?" Well, for the most part, it sounds pretty good. The performances of Satie's familiar miniatures are evocative, delicate, and brilliantly played. Even after long experience, I have no idea why one composition of Phillip Glass's music works and another one doesn't since they're all drawn from the same basic materials. But Company, all 8 minutes of it, is mesmerizing. Feldman's Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety is fascinating, mostly for its brevity. As he got older, Feldman worked in ever more expansive forms; his infamous string quartet is six hours long. Madame Press displays all of Feldman's signature gestures in less than four minutes, and thereby provides a perfect introduction to his work for those who haven't heard it before (or are reluctant to engage with pieces that demand such concentrations of time and attention).

The performance of Schubert's Third Symphony is athletic and streamlined, sometimes too much so. Conductor Jacobson misses some of the grace, charm, and warmth of the music. But for me, the problem with this disc is the reduced orchestra performance of the Unfinished. Maybe I've grown too accustomed to hearing this symphony played by a full orchestra, but I still missed the rich, dark, weighty string sonorities that seem essential to its character. But worse, in the first movement, conductor Jacobson's literal-minded approach barely suggests its melancholy or desperation; and in the second movement, his tempo is more a jog than a true walking andante, and there's no sense of "con modo" whatsoever. This uninflected sameness trivializes the music.

What to do? Well, if this odd program tempts you, please don't hesitate on my account. With the exception of the Unfinished, the performances are poised and stylish; and the sound is superb, vibrant and realistic throughout. I would make one suggestion, however. If you do opt for this purchase, I'd also make sure to get the late, great Carlos Kleiber's Schubert Symphonies 3 and 8 with the Vienna Philharmonic, still available on DGG in excellent sound. Kleiber's thrilling, atmospheric performances will more than compensate for whatever's missing here.

 

Performances: 

Satie, Glass, Feldman, Schubert arrangements:

Schubert Symphony No. 3:

Schubert Symphony No. 8:

Sound Quality:

Enjoyment: (all save the Unfinished)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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