Enlightenment in the time of the pandemic – Inspiring Beethoven Prometheus with the Philharmonia and Salonen

Principal Conductor & Artistic Advisor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the members of the Philharmonia Orchestra in performance. Photo © Mark Allan

Despite being a cornerstone of our repertoire, the Ludwig van Beethoven oeuvre contains many little-known, and not-too-often heard masterstrokes. Among the highlights of the composer’s 250th anniversary year, even in its pandemic-ridden guise, have been the performances of the lesser-known repertoire. 

In this respect, the most memorable occasions have been the concert performances of the passion-tide oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives (Christus am Ölberge), Op. 85 (1803/1804/1811) conducted by Sir Simon Rattle with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, subsequently released on disc, and the performance of the complete ballet score The Creatures of Prometheus (Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus), Op. 43 (1801) by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen, premiered on YouTube last Friday. 

Narrated by Stephen Fry, the Philharmonia and Salonen performance is contextualized by Gerard McBurney’s script and Hillary Leben’s animations. Recorded in studio sessions at Battersea Arts Centre on 4 November, Beethoven’s score is given an astounding reading, well served by the subtle, yet ever inspired narrative. 

Truth be told, while I can claim having heard the complete score on record (a now-classic 1990s performance by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe), I have never really listened to it. Apart from the overture, I had no proper grasp on the music as a whole, until now. 

Framed with Fry’s illuminative narrative and Leben’s brilliant animation, the Philharmonia Sessions production provides a thrilling account of Beethoven’s ravishing musical creation.

Based on Salvatore Viganò’s adaptation of the Greek myth, the sixty-minute score is abundant with vivid dance idioms and orchestral drama. Extending the sonic palette of his classical orchestra, Beethoven adds a harp and a basset horn, both given substantial solos. 

The fifteen musical numbers, framed by an overture, an introduction and a finale, were written in just eleven days. Premiered on 20 March 1801 at the Vienna Burgtheater, the ballet was given 28 performances. Seven years later, The Creatures of Prometheus became one of the very first works by Beethoven to be heard in the US in its entirety, upon its New York premiere at the Park Theatre on 14 June 1808. 

While Viganò’s libretto is lost, reviews, Beethoven’s notebooks and the original theatrical playbill make it possible to outline the dramaturgy of the ballet. A combination of several Classical myths, The Creatures of Prometheus was conceived as a celebration of the ideals of the Enlightenment, much like Haydn’s two final masterpieces, The Creation (1797-98) and The Seasons (1799-1801), the latter being premiered in Vienna a month after Beethoven’s ballet. 

The Creatures of Prometheus is an allegory of the power of the arts, ethics and knowledge in uplifting our human existence. In musical terms, Beethoven writes a witty sequence of dances, combining the old and the new, as well as the courtly and the vernacular into a joyful celebration of sound and movement. Augured with a rousing overture, often heard as a standalone concert item, the score is an absolute charmer. 

Prometheus running with fire. © Hillary Leben

On the YouTube stream, the Philharmonia performs with an all-modern instrumental setup, as they did in their recreation of Beethoven’s 1808 Academy Concert with Salonen back in March, just before the first lockdown.

Salonen’s Beethoven is very much contemporary, yet ever true to the score. Perhaps partly due to the safety-distanced seating, the orchestral fabric is admirably translucent, with the musical lines bound together into riveting textures. 

The overture comes off in a profoundly uplifting guise, setting the drama well in motion. The opening chords carry impressive weight and dazzling colour, followed by a lively tableau of agile string textures, airy winds and a propelling timpani, joined by the clear ringing of trumpets. 

Within the ensuing sequence of dances, Beethoven’s musical imagination is unleashed to the most delightful effect. A splendid combination of wind recitatives and ariosos and various dancing bands, from bagpipes to courtly ensembles, emanating from the orchestra, the fifteen dances are brought to life with top-class musicianship by Salonen and the Philharmonia musicians. 

In the Fifth Dance, marked adagio – andante quasi allegretto, Beethoven combines flute and bassoon solos with his only orchestral harp part, giving rise to some of the most beautiful music in the ballet score. Joined by a gorgeous solo cello line, the movement is pure sonic joy, superbly performed by Charlotte Ashton, Emily Hultmark, Heidi Krutzen, Timothy Walden and the Philharmonia under Salonen. 

The Eighth Dance, allegro con brio – presto, is launched by a march-figure from timpani, summoning the trumpets and horns, and, eventually, the whole orchestra into a festive processional. A showpiece par excellence, the performance by Principal Timpani Antoine Siguré and the whole Philharmonia ensemble is absolutely first-rate.

The basset horn, beautifully played by Jennifer McLaren, makes its memorable solo appearance in the Fourteenth Dance, an andante – adagio – allegro -allegretto sequence lively scored for solo winds and strings, coloured by the two horns.   

Rounding off with a splendid Finale, based on a theme that would later appear in the fourth movement of the Eroica Symphony (1802-04), Salonen and his marvellous musicians bring The Creatures of Prometheus to its uplifting close. 

Screenshot from the Battersea Arts Centre sessions for The Creatures of Prometheus with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen on 4 November 2020. © Philharmonia Orchestra

In our current pandemic-ridden times, with the performing arts facing unforeseen hardship worldwide, the Philharmonia Sessions production of The Creatures of Prometheus is a timely reminder of the crucial role of the arts in our everyday lives. 

To paraphrase Harnoncourt’s famous line, art is indeed the umbilical cord connecting us with the Divine, not just nice extra, enjoyed every now and then as mere entertainment. Like the clay creatures of Prometheus, we need to be inspired by the arts in order to thrive and prosper.

The whole creative team behind this wonderful account of The Creatures of Prometheus deserve our wholehearted praise for bringing the music back to our lives. Tailor-made for online presentation, the recorded orchestral performance, Fry’s narrative and Leben’s imagery, joined together by McBurney’s script, make the world a better place.  

Philharmonia Orchestra

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Stephen Fry, narrator

Gerard McBurney, script writer

Hillary Leben, animator

Ludwig van Beethoven: The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 (1801) – Ballet in two acts

Recorded at Battersea Arts Centre, London, Wednesday 4 November 2020

Philharmonia Sessions premiere (YouTube) on Friday 4 December 2020, 7.30pm (GMT) 

© Jari Kallio 

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