Philharmonia Orchestra, Sessions online, review: Beethoven’s grace survives Stephen Fry’s irony

Ivan Hewett
·3-min read
The Philharmonia, says Ivan Hewett, played The Creatures of Prometheus 'exquisitely' - Camilla Greenwell
The Philharmonia, says Ivan Hewett, played The Creatures of Prometheus 'exquisitely' - Camilla Greenwell

Beethoven and the ballet seem such an unlikely conjunction. Ballet is so sensuous and light and erotic; Beethoven is so solid and noble, and a touch prudish. Perhaps that’s one reason his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus has always been neglected.

But this year is Beethoven year, and his actual 250th birthday is fast approaching, so it’s the ideal moment for an enterprising orchestra like the Philharmonia to revive this early work. Last night they unveiled a new filmed performance of the music, interwoven with a telling of the story in a new text written by Gerard McBurney. 

McBurney has more or less invented a new genre of “concert plus”: an orchestral performance in a contextual setting of drama, images and historical narrative, which helps the music to speak. We had a touch of the latter here, inserted deftly into the story of the ballet by narrator Stephen Fry. McBurney’s text divided the narrative into scenes, each illustrated with illustrative animations, and each scene was followed by the appropriate musical episode. 

The story is, frankly, an awkward mish-mash of different Greek myths, mingled with lots of new episodes invented just to give the leading dancer a chance to show off his spectacular leaps. In a nutshell, Prometheus steals fire from the gods to bring to life two clay beings, who at first sluggishly reject him but eventually come properly alive with a lot of help from Apollo, the Muses, Bacchus, and anyone else within hailing distance of Mount Olympus. At the end, these two “creatures”, now fully human, lead a dance of rejoicing.

The problem of how seriously to take this story was dodged by Fry, who assumed an ironically-twinkling “once upon a time” manner. He was abetted by the animator, Hillary Leben who illustrated McBurney’s narrative with deliberately naïve imagery mocking classical conventions; for example, protecting the modesty of the naked Bacchus with a bunch of strategically-placed grapes.

Lost under the rather child-like treatment was a genuinely serious idea that surely explained the ballet’s appeal to Beethoven: the power of art and music to bring life to dull humanity. It’s shown in a telling moment when Prometheus is about to destroy his cloddish creatures in anger. A Muse appears, and says, “Don’t destroy them; take them to Mount Olympus, where their souls will be kindled.” In the music that follows, there’s a magical change in the harmony, which for a moment last night transported us to the Enlightenment idealism of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio.

Apart from that brief touch of sublimity, there were some delightful musical inventions, particularly in the dances such as the lovely Pastorale with its bagpipe drones, and an even more delicious slow dance with harp and solo woodwinds. Everything was exquisitely played, and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen infused the score with a properly balletic grace; even the grand or portentous moments always kept a sense of flow. Beethoven’s sublime mood may have been only fleetingly glimpsed, but the picturesque charm of the music had its own rewards.

This concert can be viewed for free at philharmonia.co.uk or via the orchestra’s YouTube channel