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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 ballet music (1801)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam
rec. 2017, Turku Conceert Hall, Turku, Finland
NAXOS 8.573853 [76:37]

Beethoven's only ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, is rarely staged and seldom heard in full score in the concert hall. The Overture that opens the work is familiar and the main theme in the ballet's finale is well known to most listeners as the main theme in the finale of the Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) and the Eroica Variations for piano. When we hear the music today and compare it with the ballets of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev we don't think of the music as very danceable. Indeed, it doesn't have many catchy melodies either. That said, it's still a brilliant score. Its music is light, far less serious than most of Beethoven's symphonic works and features more varied orchestration, using harp and basset horn.

Following the Overture and Introduction there are sixteen numbers in this two-act ballet, thus accounting for the eighteen tracks that Naxos provides here. The dance numbers are untitled, but identified by their tempo marking, though several of them are also noted as being conceived for the dancer Beethoven had in mind for the initial performances. Thus, Nos. 11 and 12 (tracks 13 and 14), for instance, indicate they were written for “Gioja”, the choreographer, dancer and mime, Gaetano Gioja (or Gioia). The ballet's libretto was fashioned by Salvatore ViganÚ, choreographer and dancer, who also commissioned Beethoven to write the music.

The story concerns the myth of Prometheus who incarnates two clay figures, a man and a woman, who lack feelings and reason. Taken to Mount Parnassus, they are taught music and other arts by Apollo, Bacchus, nine Muses and three Graces. Things do not go well, as the two eventually become consumed with military matters and the muse Melpomene presents the pair with their mortality, which horrifies them. She then stabs Prometheus for bringing them to the human world. The man and the woman weep at his loss.

Light music for a story that ends rather tragically? Well, consider that much of the action in this dance and mime ballet is of the playful and amusing variety. Moreover, when we see a ballet about mythical gods and demi-gods and statues coming to life, we know it's not real, know any elements of tragedy are equally not real. And the composer, of course, is of similar mind. It's almost the same kind of thing at the opera house: we cheer and vigorously applaud when a dying character finishes an inspired account of an aria because we love the performance and know it's proper to express our gleeful approval amid this fictional death scene. Sometimes even, the composer follows—or soon follows—the character's death with upbeat music. Thus, despite dark elements in this Prometheus story, Beethoven's generally light music is quite appropriate.

Conductor Leif Segerstam captures the essence of this score effectively, conveying its colourful character, its wit and subtleties. True, his tempos are on the expansive side especially in Nos. 5 and 7 (tracks 7 and 9). Faster music in the ballet is generally judiciously paced or perhaps reined in just a bit, while slower music tends to be somewhat expansive. Segerstam's approach then may go against current trends in interpreting Beethoven, but obviously that doesn't invalidate it. Other conductors from previous generations—Otto Klemperer comes to mind—also exhibited a more measured, more expansive manner with Beethoven's tempos. Among contemporary conductors, Christian Thielemann also tends to go against the modern or more brisk approach in Beethoven.

At any rate, Segerstam and his fine Turku Philharmonic players never sound laggardly or leaden in their tempos. One might wish for livelier pacing in the two numbers mentioned but almost everything else really comes across effectively. Moreover, the flip side of Segerstam's more measured approach is that much meaningful detail emerges and is in proper balance. The famous Overture is extremely well played, with plenty of spirit and energy. The familiar sounding but rarely heard music in the Finale also exhibits both vigour and joy. Segerstam, by the way, is quite a prolific composer, having written over 330 symphonies—and he shows little indication of slowing down. Another side note, Turku is the third largest city in Finland (behind Helsinki and Tampere) and its orchestra here is quite an excellent ensemble, with a fair number of recent recordings on the Naxos label, particularly in repertoire of Beethoven and Sibelius.

The sound reproduction that Naxos provides is very vivid and well balanced, fully state of the art. For a major work by Beethoven, there are fewer competing versions of this ballet available than you would think—about nine or ten, depending on the retailer. Most, if not all, feature considerably shorter timings than Segerstam's. Tempo choices are only a small part of the reason for this disparity in the extreme cases, however, as cuts are made. Yehudi Menuhin (EMI vinyl) and David Zinman (originally Vox/Turnabout vinyl, now on Brilliant Classics), for example, are both quite excellent but offer substantially cut versions. This new one on Naxos is complete. Some listeners who prefer Beethoven with generally brisker tempos may find certain numbers not to their liking. But on its own terms this Prometheus is very well played and interpreted. Thus, if you want a fine performance of this ballet music with excellent sound reproduction, this new one by Segerstam may be the one to get.

Robert Cummings

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