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.
Satie, Glass, Feldman, Schubert arrangements:
Schubert Symphony No. 3:
Schubert Symphony No. 8:
Enjoyment: (all save the Unfinished)