Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony n° 7 in A major, opus 92 – Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (Creatures of Prometheus), opus 43
Freiburger Barockorchester, Gottfried von der Goltz (concertmaster, conductor)
Recording: Konzerthaus Freiburg and Teldex Studio Berlin, Germany (February 2020) – 103’17
harmonia mundi HMM902446.47 (Distributed by PIAS) – Booklet in French, English and German
Beethoven’s 250th birthday observances may have been cut short last year by the Covid crisis, but for harmonia mundi, the jubilation has just begun. The recording giant is continuing to release new Beethoven albums not only this year but all the way to 2027, the 200th anniversary year of Beethoven’s death.
This is a treat for lovers not only of fine music, but of technical excellence as well. Both properties are abundantly evident in one of the recent albums in this series, the Freiburger Barockorchester’s rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony n° 7 in A major, opus 92, completed when the composer was 41 and the Creatures of Prometheus, opus 43, complete ballet, completed when the composer was 30. Gottfried von der Goltz, concertmaster, leads the historic-instrument ensemble which consists of some two dozen musicians.
While I found the first movement a bit light and perhaps a touch too casual for my own taste, it proves an enticing prologue to a work of resilience and strength. Given the youthful approach of the conductor, and the bright timbre of the period instruments, this Seventh has a cheerful brilliance that carries through to the fourth movement finale.
Of greater interest to me was the work on the second CD, Creatures of Prometheus. I always felt that we listen to Beethoven in order to hear a certain sound that we identify as Beethoven, whether it is the swashbuckling rule-crusher of the Third and Fifth Symphonies or the mystical explorer of cosmic realms in the late quartets and piano sonatas. In contrast, the early works appeal to our collective music-historian nature. How did this turn into that? We don’t listen as from the heart of a tornado or a meditation class. The early works may contain departures from conventional harmony or sonata form and quake with some ear-tingling syncopations, but they are still nice, as much of the music of Beethoven’s classical forebears was nice. Generally, when I listen to his early works, I listen not with the heart of a rebel or spiritual seeker, but with the warm glow of a proud mom.
Not so with this version of Creatures. Von der Goltz leads with the energy of discovery, as though he just ran across this score and can’t wait to share it with us. He allows the wonderful solo instrumentalists in this ensemble (oboe, basset clarinet, flute and harp, the latter rarely found in Beethoven’s works) to exhibit not only their technical skill but to take flight emotionally and unleash their own voices, which they do.
The ballet is more than 60 minutes in length, longer than the Seventh Symphony for which the album is named, yet in part it seems to move very quickly, so fast that real-life dancers would be hard-pressed to keep up the pace. The plot is a familiar theme for 18th and very early 19th centuries stage dramas: a story from Greek mythology that delivers a moral lesson and celebrates the deeds of gods no longer worshipped. In this story, statues come to life; gods sport with nymphs and fauns, and it all ends in a happy wedding. These activities provide a structure on which Beethoven hangs some charming musical ideas, including a simple theme near the end which he is later to use in the Eroica Symphony and a set of variations of the same name.
Despite the modern world’s current disinterest in mythological shenanigans, the Freiburger Creatures is full of variety, rollicking melodies and good spirits. As is typical for harmonia mundi, the sound quality is exceptional and easy on the ears. One leaves the listening experience with a smile of contentment. The cares of the world will not weigh us down in the end.