The beginning of the new century was a major turning point in the life of Ludwig van Beethoven. While war was raging Europe because of the French Revolution, the composer was undergoing a deep personal crisis. Since about 1798 his hearing had been worsening gradually, and despite the efforts of physicians, this ultimately led to total deafness. This was an especially crushing blow for Beethoven, who had been earning a living mainly as a piano virtuoso since moving from his birthplace Bonn to Vienna. Consumed by his own problems, in April 1802 he moved to a quiet settlement on the outskirts of Vienna in the hope that his health would improve. Unfortunately, that did not occur. Beethoven was convinced that his worsening deafness portended the approaching end of his life. That autumn he wrote what we know as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In this moving letter that he wrote to his brothers but never sent, at just 32 years of age, Beethoven confesses that his worsening health has brought him suffering, and also admits that he had contemplated suicide. Ultimately, however, the composer rejected such thoughts, reconciled himself to his fate, and with growing determination fully devoted himself to a higher calling. In the years that followed, Beethoven gave himself over entirely to composing and began a new chapter of his artistic career, which his biographers have called his “heroic period”.
This is when he wrote his great Fifth Symphony as well as the Eroica and the Pastoral, the piano sonata known as the Apassionata, the first version of the opera Fidelio, and the Violin Concerto in D major. The composer wrote his only concerto for that instrument on commission for Franz Clement, the talented violinist, composer, and conductor at the Theater an der Wien. The premiere took place on 23 December 1806, and Beethoven had supposedly only finished the score a few days beforehand. It appears that the artistic quality of the premiere suffered because of insufficient rehearsal time. Although the audience gave the new work a cordial reception, the music critics were more reserved, and apart from a handful of performances the concerto was largely forgotten for another 38 years. The man behind its rediscovery in 1844 was the violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, at the time just 14 years old, who performed it with great success at his London debut. Since then, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto has won a place in the standard repertoire as one of the pillars of the violin literature alongside the concertos of Brahms, Bruch, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky.
The Violin Concerto in D major makes demands of the highest order on the performer. The three-movement work in the classical concerto mould is imbued with a lyrical mood that is unusual in comparison with Beethoven’s other works. Here, the heroism we noted above, as found for example in the Eroica or the piano concertos, yields to the composer’s admiration for pastoral motifs. In this regard, the middle movement (Larghetto) is especially remarkable. Beethoven used this very slow tempo indication only twice in his orchestral works. The first time was in his Second Symphony, which he completed while staying in Heiligenstadt. The solo violin part lies mostly in the very high register, and the melodic material is built from simple scales and arpeggios, while the orchestra serves mostly as a harmonic anchor, and the music’s pulse nearly comes to a halt in places. The overall effect is one of an intimate confession, but in the final bars of the movement, the mood is interrupted by a playfully virtuosic motif announcing the following Rondo.
The protagonist of this evening’s concert, Lisa Batiashvili, first played Beethoven’s concerto at age 18, and she still regards it as an exceptional work: “It is heavenly music that carries us away to another world. Beethoven wrote a work that is incredibly virtuosic, but one must still play it as lightly as possible. Especially in the last movement, you have to show what you are capable of, but at the same time you have the feeling that it is you who must serve the music, and not the other way around.”