Let’s talk about Beethoven’s second violin concerto. By which I mean his “Kreutzer” Sonata. 

Of course, the “Kreutzer” Sonata isn’t a concerto in the strictest sense of the word. But by Beethoven’s own admission-slash-admonition, the work was “written in a very concertante style, quasi-concerto-like.” This takes a toll on the violinist. The first seven notes are delivered in media res, the rejoining salvo to a dialogue begun offstage. The violin sounds like a heldentenor, heroic assurance tinged with romantic longing. The piano responds, mirroring the violin’s melodic line but delivering it in a minor key before the two instruments belay into the vertiginous crevasses of the first movement. It’s no surprise that Beethoven began working on the “Eroica” symphony shortly after finishing this piece; the works have different destinations, but their journeys follow the same map. 

Arranged by Colin Jacobsen as an orchestral concerto, the “Kreutzer” Sonata explodes into a promethean supernova. The opening bars (also performed by Jacobsen) are played with familiarity and a seemingly deliberate avoidance of showmanship. But then the expected texture of a piano is replaced by woodwinds, offering even more melancholy in the minor key through the hints of oboe and bassoon. The call-and-response echoes aspects of Beethoven’s actual Violin Concerto, and underscores a line in Tolstoy’s own Beethoven-inspired The Kreutzer Sonata: “It seemed to me that he was weary of his solitude.” 

Buttressed by a full ensemble, the violin sounds yet more alone in its solo lines, even with the support of Jacobsen’s keenly-aware orchestration. The cushioning notes after the opening movement’s main theme rumble and spark in the orchestra’s reiteration, timpani rolling and cello adding an interrobang of punctuation. The violin plucks accenting the orchestra’s melody are clawing and convulsive. The dramatic potential that can get lost with the wrong pianist (or even simply the wrong listening session) is fully unpacked here, laid out like a sprawling dinner service for 20; crystal stemware gleaming, flatware catching the glint of tapered candles. 

The Knights’s “Kreutzer Project” is built on the foundation of Beethoven, bookended by Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata.” This work owes more to Tolstoy’s story, which focuses on a man who kills his unfaithful wife in a Beethoven-fuelled frenzy. The violence in Beethoven’s sonata is reflected in the crime at the heart of Tolstoy’s piece, and in the way he reveals it, stitch by stitch, through the narration of its perpetrator. Janáček doesn’t shy away from any of this (obviously), but he also underscores the other theme of Tolstoy’s work: our subjective relation to the truth. These psychological and philosophical dimensions factor prominently into the composer’s earlier operas (“Jenůfa,” “Káťa Kabanová,” “The Makropulos Case”) and he revisits them in his first string quartet. Knights director Eric Jacobsen and co-arranger Michael P. Atkinson accentuate these connections in their arrangement of the quartet for orchestra. Flickers of Emilia Marty’s desire blow in like gusts of snow. The synesthetic effect of “In the Mists” ushers in the nebulous underbelly of human nature. The twists and turns of “Moravian Folksongs” echo another Tolstoyism: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. 

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The Knights are no strangers to making orchestrated chamber works come to life in glittering multidimensionality (I still have chills from hearing them play an orchestrated version of Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” sounding at times like a Kol Nidre prayer, more than a decade ago). But it could have been overselling to call two works a “project.” Which is why they’ve recorded four, with Colin Jacobsen’s “Kreutzings” and Anna Clyne’s “Shorthand.” Clyne’s is the stronger work here, introducing the weedy world of Janáček while also riffing on the second movement of Beethoven’s sonata. Her natural predilection for thorny timbers and phantasmal texture work well with the Czech composer’s overgrown paths and houses of the dead, and soloist Karen Ouzounian plays with a voracious, burnished tone, as though the 11-minute work were a full concerto. Perhaps it should be. 

About 20 years earlier in the pantheon of Beethoven-inspired works is Brett Dean’s “Testament,” originally scored for a dozen violas of the Berlin Philharmonic. A few years later, Dean expanded the work’s capacity and capaciousness for what he calls “a Beethoven-sized orchestra,” with woodwinds, brass, and timpani rounding out the string section. His inspiration was not one of Beethoven’s pieces, but rather a work that has achieved literary status: the composer’s “Heiligenstadt Testament,” addressed to his brothers in 1802 and opened after his death 25 years later. What had begun as moments of absent-mindedness and confusion had morphed into the beginnings of what would become Beethoven’s deafness; people began to mistake him as “hostile, malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic,” accusations at which he takes umbrage in his famous letter:

You do not know the secret causes of my seeming so.… Oh, how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly-sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men, “Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.” How could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed?

The writing of this letter was a monumental turning point in Beethoven’s life. Biographer Maynard Solomon described it as “a leave-taking—which is to say, a fresh start” (a sentiment Dean would later purloin for his composer’s note to “Testament”). Solomon adds that the letter, never delivered in his lifetime, was Beethoven “metaphorically enact[ing] his own death in order that he might live again.” About six months after the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven began work on the “Kreutzer” Sonata, a hero’s journey forged in the brimstone of everyday life. His subsequent “Eroica” Symphony was, according to CUNY music theorist Joseph N. Strauss, “a narrative of disability overcome.” 

Dean’s “Testament” exists in the margins of these historical touchpoints. The work begins with hissing whispers of Beethoven’s quill scratching out the innermost contents of his psyche; the string section’s bows are un-rosined, the wind players begin by blowing air through their instruments. Tones are haphazard, the content of the piece obscured by this disconnect between intent and impact that must make for an even more compelling live performance of opposites. “One sees much action,” Dean writes of the work. “But it is an indeterminate aural experience.”  

The piece evolves to fully inhabit—or, more accurately, invade—the space, filling every pore and crevice. Dean quotes liberally from Beethoven’s first “Razumovsky” Quartet, another work that came in his “Eroica” period. Chords act out their own deaths in arpeggiated anxiety so that they may live again with ferocious urgency. The balance of the diaphanous and the bellicose would later be echoed in Dean’s “Hamlet,” which had a critically-acclaimed run at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year. The end isn’t so much a conclusion or laying to rest as it is a moment of beginning again. 

Given the heroic connections of “Testament,” it would be obvious for Vladimir Jurowski to pair Dean with the “Eroica” Symphony for one of his concert programs as the Bayerisches Staatsorchester’s new music director. But, as Albrecht Selge put it in VAN a few years ago, “Jurowski has a taste for detours.” In this case, Jurowski looked backwards to Beethoven’s Second Symphony, written largely during his stay in Heiligenstadt. The realities of his changing situation are reflected in the structure of the work, defying contemporary convention by making the third movement a scherzo in lieu of the tamer minuet. Its first movement, fierce in exposition and recapitulation, hints at its explosive nature. Its finale, if musicologist Richard Greenberg is correct, groans and growls in a sly nod to the composer’s gastric issues; a glistening six minutes of fartissimo. 

This did nothing to endear Beethoven to his critics, one of whom described the work as “a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die.” Jurowski fosters the dragon, tending its wounds and allowing it to regain the full, fiery force of its power in a crisp performance that showcases the individual voices of Munich’s Bavarian State Opera orchestra while also creating a blazing, compelling whole. ¶