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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Creatures of Prometheus, op.43, Version for Piano, Hess 90 (1801)
Warren Lee (piano)
rec. 2018, Wyastone Concert Hall, UK
NAXOS 8.573974 [67:36]

While major orchestral compositions of the classical period were commonly transcribed for piano, it was far less common for that drudgery to be accomplished by the composer himself. In such a case, one cannot help but pay more attention to the composer’s view of his work in piano reduction, and even more so in the case of Beethoven. This recording by Warren Lee marks only the second commercial recording of Beethoven’s piano version of his 1801 ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus.

Written in between Beethoven’s first and second symphonies, as he was becoming increasingly plagued by problems with his hearing, the ballet was Beethoven’s longest composition to date. Premiering 28 March, 1801, it was created for choreographer Salvatore Vigaṇ, an Italian who had achieved great success in Vienna. Unfortunately, although the Overture remains in the repertoire to this day, the full ballet is seldom performed, in large part due to the fact the text and choreography are long lost.

We do, however, have a general sense of the plot from a theatre announcement, as well as Beethoven’s notes in the score and his sketchbooks. In addition to the Overture, there is an Introduction with a tempest that prefigures the storm movement of the Sixth Symphony, plus 16 numbers spread over two acts. The Greek god Prometheus (apparently portrayed by Vigaṇ himself), having breathed life into two statues of his creation in the very brief Act I, then takes them to Parnassus in the much longer Act II. In a series of pantomimes they are instructed in the arts of music, theatre (including comedy and tragedy) and dance, by various Muses and gods and demigods. The finale famously uses a theme that would be reused by Beethoven as the conclusion of his Symphony No. 3, Eroica, as well as in a set of piano variations, and elsewhere.

The piano transcription by the composer, catalogued as Hess 90, is a quite straightforward affair. Seemingly aware that there was little hope of making profits from publication of the orchestral score (which did not happen until years later), Beethoven intentionally made the piano version quite accessible to talented amateurs, no doubt in hopes of increasing sales. There is little virtuosity required beyond an ability to deal with parallel thirds. The transcription hardly does more than serve as a faithful representation of the music of the ballet; one should not expect a Lisztian reinterpretation of the music.

Pianist Warren Lee admirably follows Beethoven’s lead and gives us an equally straightforward interpretation of the lengthy score. Unlike Steven Beck’s 1999 premiere recording (MONUMENT RECORDS 00.01.99), which takes a quite Romantic approach to the music, Lee’s reading is firmly in the Classical mode. That’s fitting since the ballet chronologically falls right between the composition of Beethoven’s first and second symphonies; this is not quite yet the Beethoven of the Eroica. The Overture is appropriately grand, and the tempest of the introduction is quite effective. I do question some of Lee’s tempo choices; in particular, the Allegro vivace of No. 3 is quite slow and deliberate; it’s neither ‘Allegro’ nor ‘vivace’. Throughout this recording I find myself wishing for a little more urgency in the performance.

Where Lee really excels is in the softer and more legato sections of the piece. His touch is quite sensitive for the most part. In No. 5 (Adagio – Andante quasi allegretto), he does get a bit ponderous, but the Allegretto in No. 6 recovers nicely for a very charming rendition. I would have liked to have heard a bit more contrast from Lee between the more symphonic moments and the lighter ones. There is a bit of sameness to Lee’s sound that tends to get a trifle monotonous. As we approached the end, I was missing Beck’s sense of drama, even if his approach is not exactly appropriate to this period in Beethoven’s career. However, the Finale in Lee’s hands does have a vivacious dance character, while avoiding the preciousness that is all too easily fallen into with the rather trivial theme.

The engineering on Naxos’ disc is quite clean and crisp. This is in sharp contrast to the rather dense reverberation throughout Beck’s recording of the piece, and again, Naxos’ approach is far more appropriate to Lee’s classical view of the piece.

Mark S. Zimmer

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