Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Knights at Dresden Music Festival

The Knights at Semperoper, Dresden
The Knights at Semperoper, Dresden
Mozart, Beethoven, Honegger, Feldman: Jacobsen, Vogler, Siirala, The Knights, Jacobsen: Dresden Music Festival at Semperoper
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 28 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Wonderfully vital playing from the young American chamber orchestra

For our second concert at the Dresden Music Festival, the New York based chamber orchestra The Knights presented a concert of music by Arthur Honegger, Beethoven, Morton Feldman and Mozart at the Semperoper on 28 May 2014. Conducted by their co-founder Eric Jacobsen, the group were joined be soloists Colin Jacobsen (violin), Jan Vogler (cello) and Antti Siirala (piano) for Beethoven's Triple Concerto.

The Knights was founded by brothers Eric and Colin Jacobsen, Eric conducts and Colin leads the orchestra. At the Semperoper they played on the fore-stage (above the pit) in front of the opera house's dramatic drop-curtain of the nine muses. The group's line up had under 30 players with 15 strings. Rather interestingly their basic formation was an arc with violins at either end and the woodwind in the middle, thus bringing the woodwind more forward in the mix and giving much more the feel of an extended chamber group.


They opened with Honegger's Pastorale d'Ete which was premiered in Paris in 1921, thus chiming in with the festival's theme of the Golden Twenties. Eric Jacobsen conducted it from memory. The work opened with a gentle rocking combining seductive horn melodies with violin decorations. Honegger made the piece highly redolent of soporific summer evenings and the group brought this out to perfection.

Beethoven's Triple Concerto comes between his second and third symphonies and was premiered in 1808. Essentially Beethoven has written a concerto for piano trio and the writing for each solo instrument combines solo moments with more accompanying figures. This can cause balance problems on a modern piano and requires a very sympathetic pianist. The three soloists Colin Jacobsen (the orchestra's leader), Jan Vogler (the festival's artistic director) and Antti Siirala had played the work with the orchestra before and in fact have just recorded it.

The orchestral introduction to the first movement had a lovely feeling of controlled excitement building. The group's sound had a very historically informed feel, though playing on modern instruments, with plenty of air between the notes, good woodwind balance and a clarity of string sound. This was matched by both string soloists who produced slim, fine-grained tone. The three soloists displayed a lovely rapport, functioning very much like a chamber group with Siirala proving very sensitive in the passages where the piano needs to keep down. It was a very vibrant and vital performance, with some sensitive playing. Often Beethoven pairs the soloists up, so that for much of the time Colin Jacobsen and Jan Vogler were playing together, in a great partnership.

The second movement opened with a lovely singing melody from Vogler on the cello, before being joined by the other soloists. Here there was much intelligent listening between the soloists, with accompanying passages discreet but full of vitality. The transition from this movement to the next, when the soloists take over and speed things up, was magical.

The last movement had Colin Jacobsen and Jan Vogler passing solos between each other in a delightful manner, then Siirala took up the orchestral accompanying figure. All three clearly enjoyed the way Beethoven then tossed his ideas around, and we were treated to some extremely exciting playing indeed. This was one of the most satisfying performances of Beethoven's lovely but tricky concerto that I have heard in a long time.

The interval gave us an opportunity to explore the foyers of the opera house. Designed by Gottfried Semper in the 19th century the building was restored after destruction in World War 2 and re-opened in the 1980's. The grand staircases and and main foyers have had their elaborate plasterwork and paintings wonderfully restored.

The second half opened with Morton Feldman's Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety. Premiered in 1970 the work is a memorial to Feldman's piano teacher who had taught him when he was 12. It is written for just 12 instruments, two flutes, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, bells, celeste, two cellos and two basses. It is an austere, spare piece starting with fragments of nothing developing into a short two note figure which is passed obsessively by the instruments in various tempos wth a variety of accompaniments. The result was mesmerising, highly evocative and curiously moving.

The group finished with a performance of Mozart's final symphony, Symphony No.41 in C Major KV551, written in 1788, which Eric Jacobsen conducted from memory. The opening Allegro was crisp and highly articulated with quite a steady tempo and great clarity of detail. One thing that impressed in all the evening performances was the way that the group functioned almost with chamber music-like attention to detail. There were some lovely solos, and great dramatic contrasts with very vital playing. And the group certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The Andante second movement was beautifully controlled with great care over the phrasing but the feeling that things were simmering underneath. It was a rather exciting performance for all its apparently low-key nature. There was a lovely balance between the woodwind and strings, with the sort of clarity and definition you don't get in bigger groups. Something that can only be brought off with a group of strong individual players as the Kinghts clearly possess. The minuet had a lovely light, transparent feel and a delightful dancing bounce to the rhythms.

The finale was admirably crisp and zippy. Jacobsen took it at quite a lick but still with space for the detail in the music. The quieter passages were beautifully controlled,  and all was vividly executed with some stunning playing.

We were treated to not one, but two encores. Year of the Boar by Soupy Stevens, an exciting neo-John Adams piece for the strings, and a piece by Joao Gilberto. Both were exciting and interesting but a little too long and felt something of an indulgence. I came away with the impression that the roup was saying that this was what they would rather have been playing.

This was a concert full of vividly characterful playing and wonderfully intent performance, and clearly appreciated by the capacity audience.

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