The Knights bring blazing vitality to offbeat Schubert and Liszt program

Thu Aug 25, 2011 at 12:19 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Knights performed music of Schubert and Liszt Wednesday night at Ravinia.

After what was by all accounts a successful debut at Ravinia last summer, The Knights returned to the Martin Theatre Wednesday night for a generous and envelope-pushing program of Schubert and Liszt.

The impressive qualities of the youthful New York-based chamber orchestra were immediately apparent in the opener, Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture which made a worthy calling card. Conductor Eric Jacobsen led a dramatic performance that had weighty impact in the opening chords and brought a buoyant vitality to the ensuing Allegro. The Knights’ strings are first-class across every section (the first and second violins swapped places after intermission). Woodwinds proved more variable while the horns had a couple jarring lapses throughout the first half.

The Knights tackled the next three pieces played as a group sans conductor. Liszt’s brief tribute, At the Grave of Richard Wagner –oddly, listed on the Ravinia website but not in the evening’s program — received a concentrated performance that showed the luminous gleam of the Knight strings.

Co-concertmaster Colin Jacobsen’s retooling of Schubert’s song The Brook’s Lullaby sounded more like it was channeling Smetana, but received a flowing rich-toned reading. The ensuing arrangement of Schubert’s Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel verged on soupy at times but brought out the Austrian folk flavor while underlining the lullaby-like essence of the setting.

Conductor Eric Jacobsen returned for Liszt’s From the Cradle to the Grave. In this, one of the Hungarian composer’s less bombastic tone poems, the conductor drew spirited playing in the warlike middle section and some striking dynamic detailing from the strings in the finale. The performance would have benefited from similar tonal refinement in the woodwinds, and overall this  felt like something of a work in progress with the bar lines too palpable in Jacobsen’s fitfully segmented direction.

In what was probably the least heralded Osvaldo Golijov world premiere in recent history, The Knights substituted the Argentinian composer’s arrangement of Liszt’s haunting piano work, The Black Gondola for the two listed arrangements of Liszt songs — unannounced and without any acknowledgement of the switch until nearly a half-hour later near the concert’s conclusion.

Recently recorded by the group for the soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppola’s upcoming thriller Twixt, Golijov’s undulating transcription sounded like a score to a deep-sea documentary but made an effective enough prelude to Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.

Jacobsen directed a fluent, bracing performance of Schubert’s tragic symphonic torso with a powerful opening movement that yet had ample weight and dramatic heft. More controversial was the conductor’s fleet tempo for the second movement, more con moto than Andante; Jacobsen made a worthy case for shearing off some of the accumulated sentimental pathos though surely the coda needs more room to resonate than it was given.

Symphonic arrangements of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 have long been shot out of the canon of “respectable” orchestra programs and relegated to pops concerts (though even infrequently heard there in recent decades).

But snobbery be damned, this is wonderful music and kudos to The Knights for resurrecting this brilliant showpiece. The full-tilt performance of Franz Doppler’s unapologetically glitzy transcription delivered the finest playing of the evening. Sparked by notably virtuosic trumpet and string playing, Jacobsen led a blazing performance with panache and swagger to burn, the smiling musicians clearly enjoying themselves as they vaulted through Liszt’s tempo reverses, rhythmic flips and crescendoes.

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