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.