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Briefly Noted: The Knights and the Kreutzer

available at Amazon
The Kreutzer Project (Beethoven, Janáček), The Knights, C. Jacobsen, E. Jacobsen

(released on August 19, 2022)
Avie AV2555 | 75'11"
The Knights bill themselves as an orchestral collective. Whether or not the future of orchestras is exclusively small and flexible, which we hope it is not, this New York-based group has shown a way forward. Violinist Colin Jacobsen and conductor (and occasionally cellist) Eric Jacobsen have woven together this disc from arrangements and new works based on the story of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" sonata.

Responding to an inscription in Beethoven's title ("scritta in uno stile molto concertante, quasi come d’un concerto"), Colin Jacobsen has arranged Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9 as a violin concerto for himself as soloist. The format retains the famous opening of the first movement, a sort of concerto cadenza out of place, in which the solo violin trades themes with the piano, now given life principally by the woodwinds. The chamber-sized group of fifteen strings plus single woodwinds and brass (except for a pair of horns) reveal many new dimensions to this familiar work.

Leoš Janáček wrote his first string quartet in reaction to Leo Tolstoy's novella "The Kreutzer Sonata," in which Beethoven's virtuosic music represents illicit sexual passion, with tragic consequences. A jealous husband discovers his wife in the arms of a violinist with whom she had played Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata. The husband recalls hearing them play the first movement for the first time: “As for my wife, never had I seen her as she was that night. Those brilliant eyes, that severity and majestic expression while she was playing, and then that utter languor, that weak, pitiable, and happy smile after she had finished.” Although the violinist escapes, the husband stabs his wife to death with a dagger.

Michael P. Atkinson, one of the ensemble's horn players, has orchestrated Janáček's score for the same compact orchestral ensemble, with some arrangement completed by Eric Jacobsen. The piece is not even half as long as Beethoven's monumental sonata, but the arrangement amps up the turbulent nature of the music, including some atmospheric touches for harp.

Between these bookends are two new works. In a bizarre twist, French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer never played the sonata Beethoven dedicated to him (in fact, the composer wrote it for George Hightower, an Afro-British violinist). In Colin Jacobsen's Kreutzings, instrumental phrases alternate with drum kit, and hints of Richard Strauss glimmer in the harmony and orchestration. String players will recognize the homage to Kreutzer's meticulous Etude No. 2, a bugbear for bow training. Shorthand, a string sextet by Anna Clyne, puts Knights cellist Karen Ouzounian in a solo role, with Eric Jacobsen taking up the other cello part. The title comes from a line in Tolstoy's novella, and Clyne takes motifs and ideas from both Beethoven and Janáček, with some exotic melodic elements, rather gorgeous.

The Knights will perform a slightly modified version of this program to open the 50th anniversary season of the Candlelight Concert Society 4 p.m. September 11, at the presenter's home base, the Horowitz Center in Columbia, Md.

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