BEETHOVEN: The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 (Australian Broadcasting Corporation/ Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/ Michael Halasz) (Naxos: 8.553404)
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Born at Bonn-on-Rhine on December 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was to become the world's most famous composer after the death of Mozart. He came from a family of musicians, his grandfather, whom we was named after, was a singer of repute, an opera composer and conductor. His father was a tenor in the Electoral choir in Bonn, and it was he who taught Ludwig music from the age of four. It is reported that he was proficient in the violin at the age of 8, and by 11 he could perform Bach's major works at the keyboard.
As a teenager he was sent to Vienna to study with Haydn, who he claimed neglected him, and he was taught in secret by Schenck. By this time he had already written a cantata at the age of 11, and the following year he had three piano sonatas published. By the age of 14 he was earning money as an organist and violinist, but at the age of 17 he suffered the double tragedy of the death of his mother and his father lost his position. He has given shelter by the parents of two of his pupils, but was fortunate enough to be befriended by Count Waldstein who acted as his patron, who paid for him to travel and live in Vienna.
He took with him a small, but extremely interesting, portfolio of works, which made a great impression on the musical establishment, and with a growing income from admirers and royalties, he could devote more of his time to composition. His performance of his First Piano Concerto in 1795 brought him wide acclaim, and the following year he was to give a concert before the King.
We can see the first phase of his career ending in 1800, and the second, and most happy and productive, lasting until 1815. It was during this period that he reached the peak of popularity, and though never the most charming of people, embarked on several love affairs. It was the period where he composed from his third to eighth symphonies, his greatest string quartets, the violin concerto, the opera Fidelio and two more piano concertos.
During his final period, 1815-27, his health began to deteriorate, infections picked up in his sexual encounters, affecting his liver, and even more crucially, he went deaf. From then on his performances as a pianist were often problematic as he banged at the keyboard trying to hear himself. Yet in this troubled time he was to compose his masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony. It was, however, to be pneumonia which started the long painful illness which led to his death aged 57.
By the standards of his predecessors his output was small. Just 138 works he thought worthy of publication, and a further 70 he left unnumbered.
Beethoven was invited in 1800 to write a ballet score for Salvatore Viganò, the Italian dancer and choreographer. He had pioneered the coreodramma, a mixture of mime, dancing and acting, intended to relate a story. The two act Creatures of Prometheus is based on the Greek mythological person who drove ignorance from people, and brought to life two statues who are instructed in the arts. The scenario of the original ballet has long since been lost, though in Beethoven's sketch-book the basis of the action is provided. It is in sixteen sections divided between the two acts, and it is possible that Beethoven may have had in mind prominent dancers of the period when writing various sections. It is scored for a conventional sized orchestra, and though in the first two years it received 23 performances, it never achieved major popularity. In recent years it has received new treatment from famous choreographers, it is not the style of music we have come to expect in ballets, and Beethoven gave too little regard to the need of dancers. For his part, Beethoven believed that it was the choreographers that were to blame for its lack of success. Nevertheless, heard in the concert hall, the score is a very fine one, and we hear much of the inspiration that was to later form the basis for his symphonic output.
The work has never been a popular one among record companies, but it has been fortunate in receiving many outstanding performances. Probably the most highly regarded at present comes from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Sir Charles Mackerras on Hyperion. At the low Naxos price there is no viable competitor, though at a slightly higher price, there is a fine performance from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on DG.