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Beethoven Project (2018)
Michał Białk (piano)
Aleix Martínez: Beethoven/Prometheus
Edvin Revazov: Beethoven’s Ideal/Apollo
Borja Bermudez: Beethoven’s Nephew
Patricia Friza: Beethoven’s Mother
Anna Laudere: Beethoven’s Distant Beloved/Terpsichore
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Simon Hewitt
Choreography: John Neumeier
Video Director: Myriam Hoyer
rec. 2019, Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, Germany
C MAJOR 753704 Blu-ray [134 mins]

Between 1799 and 1801, Beethoven composed a series of a dozen contredanses for orchestra, now catalogued as WoO 14. They are mostly pleasant but unremarkable little compositions, meant to be danced to at a New Year’s Eve ball and then forgotten. However, the seventh of them, a very simple, almost childlike little tune, captured Beethoven’s imagination in much the same way as Diabelli’s ridiculous little waltz in C would compel Beethoven to write 33 titanic variations some twenty years later.

The seventh contredanse (for simplicity, I’ll call it the “Dance Theme”) found its way into being the theme of a set of piano variations, op.35 (1801), and Beethoven began writing a string quartet movement based upon it as well in 1802. The Dance Theme served as the finale for Beethoven’s only ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, op.43 (1801). Finally, Beethoven worked the Dance Theme out of his system by featuring it as the finale of one of the greatest symphonic works, his Third Symphony, the Eroica, op.55 (1804). He never revisited the Dance Theme after that.

Beethoven Project, a new ballet choreographed and designed by acclaimed choreographer John Neumeier, takes those disparate threads of the three major works that incorporate the Dance Theme, as well as excerpts from several other Beethoven works, to give us a new and different look at both these compositions and Beethoven the man.

Part One, focused on the Eroica Variations, op.35, is heavily biographical. On a bare, harshly lit stage, Beethoven (Aleix Martínez) is crumpled up as Michał Białk (onstage with his piano) plays the opening theme. As if awakened, Beethoven uncurls and becomes increasingly animated and gymnastic (even standing on his head at one point). Like Prometheus (whom Martínez also portrays in part II), he forms his creations out of nothing, forming them from shapeless clay.

We then see some of the great traumas that formed Beethoven’s life, beginning with the death of his beloved mother (Patricia Friza), leaving him at age 20 as the sole support for his two younger brothers (a moment symbolized by the previously-shirtless Beethoven putting on a frock coat). This episode is set against the haunting second movement of the piano trio op.70/2 (the “Ghost” Trio, also performed onstage). It’s quite touching as Friza is nurturing but by her death leaves young Beethoven a complete mess. Neumeier ties this quite explicitly to the string of unsuccessful romances in Beethoven’s life, depicted as anonymous women who riotously dance with him. Beethoven’s deafness is portrayed effectively through the means of a sound collage over the Largo e mesto second movement of the piano sonata op.10/3, mimicking tinnitus quite realistically, at moments with full-on horror.

The quartet #15, op.132 third movement Molto adagio brings the Immortal Beloved (or the Distant Beloved, as Neumeier calls her, portrayed very effectively by Anna Laudere) to the fore. The hopes for closeness, love, and a family are dashed and Beethoven again throws his affections out randomly in his pain. Finally, the difficult relationship between Beethoven and his nephew Karl, for whom he acted as guardian, concludes part one, as Karl’s suicide attempt at military school is obliquely suggested but not explicitly portrayed onstage.

Part II is a seriously pared-down version of The Creatures of Prometheus, distilled to its essentials: Prometheus (Martínez) sculpts the first humans through a deft piece of costume design, and Apollo (Edvin Revazov) and Terpsichore (Laudere) teach them to dance, concluding in the exultant finale.

The third part is the Third Symphony, by far the most abstract and least programmatic portion of the ballet. The weakest section is the first movement, which emphasizes the erratic accents of Beethoven’s warlike composition, but seems to run out of things to say well before the conclusion. Far more effective is the wonderful pas de deux of Revazov and Laudere, as they dance to the funeral march (taken at a pretty good clip by Simon Hewett, no doubt in order to be danceable.) This episode is quite stunning as they move with the thousand-yard stare of men who have seen too much combat; halfway through, the multimedia screen above them erupts into flames. It’s chilling and highly memorable.

The third movement Scherzo is an eruption of a dance of spring and rebirth, with explicit (but not overly sexualized) references to courtship. The costumes here are simple and evocative. Some of the movements suggest the form of the contredanse from time to time, tying it in thematically with the rest of the ballet. At last, we, like Beethoven, finally find release from the mesmerizing Dance Theme through the last movement. Beethoven reappears in modern street clothes, as if to say this is us today, not just him two centuries ago, emphasizing the timelessness of this uplifting score.

I must admit that I am not a great fan of ballet ordinarily, but I found myself captivated and won over by Neumeier’s vision. The dancing and the costume design are powerful and capture the necessary moods well. I was particularly amused by such details as Karl’s pants: one leg short and the other long, representing him being caught between childhood and adulthood. That made the military jacket he wears as he prepares to end his life all the more poignant. There’s also a great economy of design, as a single piece of paper represents successively the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which Beethoven first confessed his deafness to his brothers and expressed his heartfelt agony, the letter to the Immortal Beloved, in which he poured out his love in words still quoted today, and the score of the Dance Theme in the 7th contredanse.

The cast, apparently all from the Hamburg Ballet, are excellent. In particular, I found Laudere to be terrific, not just dancing but really acting as the Immortal Beloved. She seemed like a woman who could captivate a Beethoven and summon an uncontrolled outpouring of love from him. Martínez is highly entertaining, suffusing his performance with emotion and humor throughout. It doesn’t hurt that he’s by far the shortest member of the company, which makes him resemble Beethoven even more so. Revazov, as his Ideal, towers over him, representing how Beethoven thought of himself as bigger than life.

A 38-page booklet with essays in English and German is the primary extra, other than trailers for four other ballets choreographed by Neumeier and released by C Major. The Blu-ray is region free. Audio is presented in uncompressed 2.0 PCM stereo, as well as active DTS-HD MA 5.0 surround sound. Both sound quite wonderful, with enormous dynamic range and no issues of any kind.

Always interesting to watch, this ballet is highly enjoyable and kept my attention firmly in hand for the entire running time. A basic familiarity with Beethoven’s life is assumed, but I expect anyone reading Musicweb International has sufficient background to appreciate this important piece of work.

Mark S. Zimmer

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