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Prometheus: Musical Variations on a Myth
A film by Christopher Swann.
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (1801) - Introduction, ‘La Tempesta’ [1’55]; No. 1, Poco Adagio - Allegro con brio [2’59]; No. 9, Adagio - Allegro molto [3’41]; No. 10, Pastorale: Allegro [2’56].
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Prometheus, S99 (1850, rev. 1855) [13’42].
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Prometheus. ‘Le poème de feu’, Op. 60a (1908-10) [19’26].
Luigi NONO (1924-1990)

Prometeo, Suite (1992) - Isola seconda, ‘Hölderlin’b [9’42].
aMartha Argerich (piano); aBerliner Singakademie; bSolistenchor Freiburg (Ingrid Ade-Jesemann, Monika Bair-Ivenz, Ulrike Krumbiegel, Matthias Schadock)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado.
PCM Stereo. 4:3. Region Code: 0 Worldwide. No rec. info.
ARTHAUS 101717 [57’00]


An intriguing idea, brought to life not only by Abbado’s advocacy, but also by the presence of the great Martha Argerich. No stranger herself to fire - her playing is frequently and with justification referred to as fiery or incendiary - Argerich might be the initial pulling power of this DVD. However as viewing goes on it becomes clear that as a package this DVD is fascinating, indeed that it is something really special. All credit to Christopher Swann for providing us with this thought-provoking and stimulating experience.

Prometheus is the mythological figure who liberated Man from his ignorance, introducing them to skills, arts, knowledge and, most famously, fire. Punished by Zeus for this, Prometheus is chained to a rocky crag. In taking four composers, we are introduced to four faces of Prometheus: Creator of the Human Race; Prometheus the liberated; Prometheus the Bringer of Fire; and Prometheus the nomad.

First stop is Beethoven’s music for the ballet, ‘The Creatures of Prometheus’. Abbado, never my favourite Beethovenian in the Symphonies, seems more comfortable with this incidental music. Swann’s visuals are fascinating ... and this extends to repeated playings. Nature shots of clouds and sunsets juxtaposed with an initially sepia Berliner Philharmoniker and a Mask of Prometheus accompany Abbado’s big-boned (but not inappropriately so) reading of the score. Perhaps the most touching moment is the piping oboes of the last excerpt, ‘Pastorale’, to a film of harvest-time.

Part II is Prometheus ‘Bound and Liberated’ and here the programming really takes off in a superior performance of Liszt’s tone-poem. Abbado seems to have inspired his forces to really believe in this music - because played badly, Liszt’s tone-poems can seem execrable. Abbado’s account breathes fervent devotion from every note. Swann’s pictorial images of a sort of Hell juxtaposed with red-hot furnaces seems perfect. Abbado helps the music by letting its long single lines stretch according to their need, contrasting them with a dynamic Allegro; the high, incredibly mobile strings are jaw-dropping in their virtuosity. The brass blaze and in particular there is some simply superb trumpet playing. Binding Liszt’s threads together beautifully, Abbado works the music towards a rousing, involving climax. Spectacular.

Scriabin’s take on Prometheus seems most famous for its use of colours in response to the harmonies he employs. A memorable Prom performance from 2001 (Kirov Orchestra/Gergiev with Toradze as pianist) remains lodged in this reviewer’s memory. Abbado’s performance is a visual treat because of the projection of colours - presumably they match the composer’s scheme. Scriabin’s synaesthesia is a fascinating idea. He ‘heard’ in colour, but synaesthesia also takes in ‘feeling tastes’ for example. In essence synaesthesia is an intermingling of the senses. Also Abbado has the advantage of Argerich on piano situated at the front of the orchestra in soloist’s position. Argerich’s touch seems to be infinite in its colourings yet she is capable of strength too. In fact, she explodes on the musical scene like an elemental force. Trills, so important in Scriabin - like in late Beethoven, they are no mere decoration, but a method of intensifying the vibrations of a note or a pair of notes - are delivered not only with stunning technique but with a real sense of their structural meaning. Abbado seems at home in this piece, so much so that the climax is of crushing intensity.

But ... do we need flickering flames on the picture in addition to the colour-organ’s visual contribution?. I think not as it speaks of the superficial, something Swann had thus far avoided.

The inclusion of Nono is inspired. At just under ten minutes long, this excerpt from Prometeo is allotted half the booklet-note space! The music talks of the pursuit of an elusive god. Visually, Swann has a field-day: silhouetted conductor’s hands over what looks like a swimming pool, for example. Indeed if you suffer from sea-sickness a couple of preventative pills beforehand might not go amiss. Yet Swann’s vision suits this elusive, disturbing yet intrinsically compelling music and the vocal soloists are simply amazing; the sustaining of those stratospheric soprano lines with such true pitch is miraculous. This string-less piece mesmerically floats off into silence, a most fitting way to close a memorable DVD. This is one of the best DVD films I have seen so far and one I will return to often. And not just for Martha.

Colin Clarke

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