The Knights, an ensemble of orchestral dimensions but flexible enough to perform repertoire drawing on a wide range of contemporary and international musical styles, began as a group of talented young musicians improvising together. Today it has evolved into one of the most intriguing and dynamic advocates for music of our time, particularly devoted to what is emerging as a new formal style: sonic landscapes that are generally lush, lyrical, eclectic in instrumentation and melodic forms, and given to the expansive and hypnotic vistas of minimalism without the strict dependence on repetition. This is high-end mood music, with its roots in the global everywhere.
Yo-Yo Ma has been an advocate of the group, and violinist Colin Jacobsen (who co founded The Knights with his brother, conductor and cellist Eric Jacobsen) is a touring member of Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Ma joins The Knights for an album that takes its name from Osvaldo Golijov’s loosed-limbed cello concerto Azul. Premiered by Ma and the Boston Symphony in 2006, the piece was substantially revised and has evolved into a four-part meditation with the cello providing an intense and introspective cantilena. The orchestra is enlarged by a large percussion section, which is active throughout and provides not just colour but also much of the tension that prevents the music from lapsing into the ardent stasis to which it always tends.
Golijov is a composer of surprises, and each of these movements moves through unexpected moods and intriguing modulations. A searching melodic fragment that opens the first movement gives way to increasingly animated descending figures, then an extended chromatic burst from the percussion, ending with a sense of interruption and expectation that sets up the aural glow of the following section, the ‘blue’ haze of a contemporary take on the chaconne. The emotional trajectory and much of the heft of the piece is fulfilled in the final movement, ‘Yrushalem’, which recalls the first movement and was inspired, at least in part, by thoughts about the violence that has gripped Israel in recent decades.
The disc includes two delightful sorbet interludes, Dvořák’s Song to the Moon from Rusalka, arranged by Jesse Diener-Bennett, and a buoyant interlude, Tierkreis: Leo, a fragment derived from Stockhausen’s Musik im Bauch, a 1975 ‘scenic piece’ which includes short musical sketches of the zodiac, of which this is one. The deft arranger is the young American composer Caroline Shaw.
Ma is definitely the star of this show, though not in every piece. His cello line is placed forward and prominently in the sound mix, and the solo part often floats up and hovers for long periods in the earnest and pleading place of his instrument’s upper range. That tone can stand for the larger ambition of the recording: to break through a perceived sense of distance from the audience, grab them firmly by the ears and hold them long enough to convey a sense of deeply felt emotion.