The celebration of Beethoven 250th anniversary must be a wonderful occasion to re-evaluate some of his works considered to be of lesser consequence. That is exactly what Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra had in mind bringing forward, in its complete form, the rarely performed music Beethoven wrote for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. Composed in 1801 to a libretto by the Italian choreographer and dancer Salvatore Viganò and presented numerous times in Vienna’s Court Theatre, the ballet met with great public success (critics were less enthusiastic claiming that the music “was too learned for a ballet”) but soon enough fell into desuetude. The Overture is the only movement that more or less made its way into the standard repertoire.

Stephen Fry
© Philharmonia Orchestra

Now, trying to rekindle the public’s interest for the entire work, Salonen and his collaborators took a remarkably unconventional approach. Gerard McBurney reimagined the music’s programme into a series of text fragments describing how Prometheus fashioned two creatures out of clay, brought them to life with the help of fire stolen from the gods, and then took his soulless “children” to Apollo’s Mount Parnassus, so they could there learn – from gods, graces and muses – what emotions are and thus become real humans. He augmented the evocation of the myth with details about the circumstances in which the opus was conceived and about its first performers. Stephen Fry read these texts – serving as explanatory preambles to each of the movements – with great charm and a glimmer of irony. Finally, Hillary Leben illustrated the tale with clever, irreverent, and only apparently childlike animations portraying the trickster Prometheus as a maladroit blond Titan and Bacchus with his private parts concealed by a bunch of grapes. A fanged, dagger-wielding Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, is accompanied by a scorpion while Orpheus is joined by a lyre-playing squirrel.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia in Battersea Arts Centre
© Philharmonia

Many characters are also given a more “serious” instrumental vahana in the score. When first introduced, in the Allegro vivace, Melpomene is associated with an oboe (beautifully played by Tom Blomfield). Some choices are obvious: Euterpe’s symbol is a flute (Charlotte Ashton) and Apollo’s is a harp (Heidi Krutzen). Others are more surprising, such as representing the female creature by a basset horn (Jennifer McLaren in the 14th movement) and the male by a bassoon (Emily Hultmark in the 15th). These very movements, featuring the creatures demonstrating their newly acquired dancing skills, allow Beethoven to contrast the old, more formal styles with the newer, more vivacious and popular ones. In the first segment, a minuet gives place to a contredanse anglaise, and in the second a gavotte is brushed away by a lively Ländler. Salonen seemed to take a particular pleasure in drawing these distinctions.

Hillary Leben's animations for Prometheus
© Philharmonia

Conceived at a turning point in Beethoven’s career, The Creatures of Prometheus is indeed looking back to Haydn’s Creation and to Mozart’s symphonic output. The first bars of the Overture are also very similar to the beginning chords of Beethoven’s own First Symphony. But, as Salonen clearly emphasised in a rendition marked by his trademark clear, economical, and elegant gestures, the score is, despite lacking big Romantic statements, more forward-looking than usually accepted. The Finale’s theme later reused in the Eroica Symphony's variations is just one example. There are others as well: the bucolic landscape described in the fifth movement, featuring a splendid cello solo (Timothy Walden), is hinting towards the Pastoral; the idea of a musical dialogue between human-like and god-like creatures may be the initial spark for the Fourth Piano Concerto’s second movement.

After more than a decade of close collaboration with their soon-to depart principal conductor and artistic advisor, the members of the Philharmonia orchestra played flawlessly for Salonen, both as an ensemble and as individual contributors. In the current circumstances, when live performances are absent from a good part of the world, performing a score whose fundamental idea is that veritable humanity is only attained via a close contact with the arts, was exceptionally meaningful.

This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonia Orchestra's video stream

Watch the video here