Argerich plays the music of Prometheus. Various/Berlin PO/Abbado (Sony) – INKPOT

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN ((1770-1827)
The Creatures of Prometheus (Excerpts), Op. 43
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Prometheus: Symphonic Poem No. 5
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915) Prometheus – The Poem of Fire
Luigi NONO (1924-1990) Prometo – Suite 1992 (Excerpts)

Martha Argerich piano
Ingrid Ade-Jensemann · Monika Bair-Ivenz sopranos
Susanne Otto alto · Peter Hall tenor
Ulrike Krumbiegel
· Matthias Schadock speakers
Berlin Singakademie Solistenchor, Freiberg
Berlin Philharmonic
conducted by Claudio Abbado

‘live’ recording

SONY Classical SK 53978-2
[75:17] full-price

by Jonathan Yungkans
Everything I am brought me here.

– Robert Lowell, Prometheus Bound (derived from Aeschylus)

Like any good chef, Prometheus wanted the best for his creations, and was not above a little creative cheating to get it. Unfortunately, when Zeus found that he had cheated a little too well and brought divine fire to mankind, he changed his fate from server to supper. Chained to a rock on a high mountainside, Prometheus suffered daily as a vulture came to eat out his liver, only to have the organ grow back supernaturally overnight.

Prometheus steals fire from the sleeping Zeus. Detail of a painting by Christian Griepenkerl.

Likewise, Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic have prepared a musical feast derived from various aspects of the Prometheus myth – the creator of humankind, the captive freed by Hercules, the bringer of light and the perpetual wanderer – with a wide range of compositional flavors and thoughtful juxtaposition of styles. The real reason many people will want this recording, however, is for the presence of Martha Argerich in the third course of this banquet, Scriabin’s Prometheus – The Poem of Fire. But more on that later – we do not want to serve these dishes out of turn.

As an appetizer, Abbado serves a series of excerpts from Beethoven’s ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, an early work written for a commission from Salvatore Vigano, ballet-master of the Viennese court. In Vigano’s libretto, Prometheus molds humankind in two senses of the word, both literally by forming him from lifeless clay and intellectually by imbuing him with knowledge of the arts and sciences. For a child of the Enlightenment such as Beethoven, such a scenario proved too good to refuse.

The final number of the ballet will be familiar to many people – Beethoven later reused the theme for the finale of the Eroica Symphony, as well as Eroica Variations for piano solo. The other numbers here, beginning with a Mozartean thunderstorm depicting Zeus’s wrath, show the abrupt key changes, tonal shifts and sudden moments of tension that characterize Beethoven’s style. While not as dynamic or individual as what his music would become, the Prometheus excerpts have their own charm and make for pleasant listening, especially when as well played as they are here.

For our second course, we are treated to a dish that is reasonably light but still adventurous – Liszt’s symphonic poem Prometheus, based on the scenario Prometheus Unbound by Johann Gottfried Herder. Originally an overture to incidental music for this play, written in 1850 to commemorate the unveiling of a statue of Herder in Weimar, the poem is one of the most compact and dynamic of Liszt’s orchestral works.

While the main theme of this work was meant to depict “suffering and apotheosis,” in keeping with Herder’s theme, Liszt’s Prometheus is more dramatic. The opening fanfare, stark and based on the interval of a fourth instead of the traditional third, imparts a thrusting, visionary quality to the music. A central episode, based on a third and introduced in the cellos, depicts both the human side of Prometheus and his empathy with mankind.

Abbado draws out the opening, a nice touch that lends the passage increased weight and heightening the drama still further. Although he does not underline the suffering or violence in the music that follows as fervently as Solti, nor is as passionate in the central episode, he maintains tension and keeps things moving. Altogether, Abbado’s is more of a consomm than Solti’s more robust fare, but the performance is still a satisfying one.

The fourth-based harmonies Liszt used to spice his work become one of the main ingredients for the next dish on the menu – Scriabin’s Prometheus – The Poem of Fire. Scriabin, considering himself a Promethean figure in his own right, developed all this work’s harmonic and melodic structures from a “tonal center” consisting of a six-note “mystic chord” of different fourths – c-f sharp-b flat-e-a-d – in which space becomes time and time becomes space. He even wanted to use a “color keyboard” to bathe listeners in different colors according to the varying degree of the musical scale, and finally immerse them in an orgasmic blaze of light and sound.

I am not a fan of Abbado’s Scriabin, and his Poem of Ecstasy with the Boston Symphony (DG – no longer available) had all the savoriness and flavor of dry, unseasoned fish. In this music, there needs to be passion, excitement, and sex. After all, what is Scriabin without sex? Compared to Abbado, Pierre Boulez is a consummate master at cooking and seasoning. He really knows how to build and shape a passage; and though he is still not in Leonard Bernstein’s league in the sex appeal department, he really lets go in some of his more recent performances, his second recording of Prometheus (DG 459647 – full price) being a prime example.

Martha ArgerichHowever, an excellent sauce can overcome bland fish and make or break a recipe. As I mentioned earlier, the real reason for getting this disc is for Martha Argerich’s contribution to the solo part, and if ever there were a sous chef who could transform an entre such as this, it is La Martha.

On the Boulez recording, Anatol Ugorski is dutiful but bland, smothering the spices Boulez has chosen with care. With Argerich, we have zest, exotic flavors, a modicum of sensuality and quite a kick in the louder passages. From her first entrance, she literally brings Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic to life, transforming the third course with a combination of seasonings as intimate as a lovers’ conversation and as heady as sex itself.

After such a bold dish, a final course could easily prove anti-climactic, undermining the structure of the meal. Abbado, fortunately, has provided both a palate cleanser and an intriguing fourth course in two excerpts from Nono’s Prometeo. Originally thinking, like Scriabin, in terms of the correspondences between colors and sounds, Nono developed Prometeo along Scriabin’s analogy of “tonal centers” between time and space. Simultaneously shimmering and austere, this work uses live electronic techniques to circulate the music timelessly in space, with neither beginning nor end, always moving in much the same way as Prometheus’s endless wandering.

The result is a work sounding very much like Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s static blocks of sound in pieces like his Requiem and Atmospheres (familiar to some listeners through its use in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey), though over a much longer time span. It may not be for everyone’s taste, but once the taste for it is acquired, the work becomes all the more fascinating and irresistible with repeated listenings – an elusive and tantalizing finish to this aural banquet.

Lowell, Robert,
Prometheus Bound (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967, 1969), 8.

JONATHAN YUNGKANS is a hopeless fan of chef Emeril Lagasse, with musical chef Martha Argerich running a close second.

793: 20.8.2000 Jonathan Yungkans

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