November 07, 2019
(++++) AS IMPRESSIVE AS ALWAYS
Beethoven: The Creatures of Prometheus. Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam. Naxos. $12.99.
Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Sibelius: Violin Concerto. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Robin Ticciati. Ondine. $16.99.
Despite all the new and rediscovered music being unearthed and performed nowadays, it is worthwhile from time to time to reexamine the giants of classical music and the reasons their works have become the foundation of the Western classical tradition. It can be especially interesting to hear their less-known works, or listen to their better-known ones when performed in atypical ways. For example, Beethoven’s only full-length ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, is rarely heard in complete form, although the overture and finale are performed on their own from time to time – the latter being built around the same theme that Beethoven would later use in the “Eroica” symphony and the Eroica Variations for piano. Hearing the full-length ballet in the sensitive, well-paced performance by the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra under Leif Segerstam, on the Naxos label, is an opportunity to experience a side of Beethoven that rarely makes it into the concert hall. For one thing, most of the music is decidedly on the lighter side: Beethoven was clearly trying here to entertain, and it was early enough in his career (1801) so that he was still comfortable in smaller forms and a mainly Classical-era style. In addition, it was early enough in Beethoven’s life so that he could hear the music clearly, and this resulted in his use of orchestral color somewhat different from the darker and more-complex hues he would later employ. This led him to include some instruments that are rarely associated with Beethoven’s music: the harp and basset horn. The overture and finale of The Creatures of Prometheus last, together, only about 12 minutes, so it may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the whole ballet to learn that it goes on for an hour and a quarter. There is some pleasant tone painting here, notably in the “La Tempesta” introduction that immediately follows the overture, and there are some very extended slow scenes in the second act that sustain quite well, one marked Adagio—Andante quasi allegretto and the other simply designated Grave. Segerstam has a particularly good touch for this music, allowing it to flow naturally and making the slower sections somewhat serious but never heavy. This was, after all, a ballet – built around the notion that Prometheus not only brought fire to humanity but also presented the human race with science and art, including music itself. So danceable pacing and numbers handled with comparative lightness fit both the type of music and the specifics of this Beethoven work. Hearing it in complete form does not exactly cast new light on Beethoven’s preeminent position among composers, but it does show him capable of working in a less-often-explored, lighter vein than is found in the complex and often stormy music for which he is better known.
One such well-known Beethoven piece is his only Violin Concerto, but the familiarity of the music does not preempt the possibility of performing and hearing it in new ways. In fact, the new Ondine recording featuring Christian Tetzlaff and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Robin Ticciati seems determined to get listeners to hear the concerto from a new perspective. This comes through in multiple ways in what is a very muscular performance that, although it eschews virtuosity for its own sake, gives the concerto a large, impressive sound that belies its essentially Classical-era construction. Some of the performers’ decisions here are genuinely revelatory. For example, Tetzlaff uses the first-movement cadenza that Beethoven wrote for the piano version of this concerto – a fascinating decision and a very unusual chance to hear a cadenza that makes tremendous structural sense because it has the piano accompanied by the timpani, in a movement that starts with timpani beats and brings them back periodically. So the very extended first movement here shows Beethoven employing timpani in a way never done before, with the cadenza accentuating just how unusual the music is. Tetzlaff and Ticciati then treat the Larghetto more as an intermezzo than a real slow movement – using it to set the stage for a fast-paced and brightly conceived finale that sweeps along in a more-bubbly manner than usual for this movement. This is not a very introspective reading of the concerto – it paints the music almost entirely in primary colors – but it is an undeniably effective one that sheds new light on the work. And the Beethoven concerto is interestingly paired with the one by Sibelius, written 99 years later. Tetzlaff and Ticciati take a somewhat similar, big-boned approach here, and it is again interesting even though, in truth, it does not work quite as well: there is a delicacy and almost pointillist precision to Sibelius’ concerto that contrasts with its strengths and outbursts, and that lighter element is largely missing in this performance. It is true that, since these concertos are rarely paired in recordings, this disc – taken as a whole – sheds light intriguingly on them both. But the genuine warmth of Sibelius’ central Adagio di molto is largely missing here, and in the speedy finale, Tetzlaff’s articulation is not as precise as it is elsewhere in this concerto and throughout the Beethoven. Nevertheless, this Sibelius reading has much to recommend it: soloist and conductor share a vision for the work, just as they do for the Beethoven, and are willing to experiment with both pieces despite the well-known nature of the music. And that is what ultimately makes works like these deserving of their place in the standard classical repertoire: they are amenable to highly varied, even experimental approaches by many different performers, with each well-considered version serving to show listeners something new and enlightening in the compositions.