United States Beethoven, R. Strauss: Canton Symphony Orchestra / Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattdt Performing Arts Hall, Canton, Ohio, 26.1.2019. (TW)
Beethoven – Finale from The Creatures Of Prometheus; Symphony No.3 in E-flat major, ‘Eroica’
R. Strauss – Metamorphosen
With Beethoven as a focal point, the three works on the 26 January Canton Symphony Orchestra MasterWorks program made a beautiful and bittersweet journey through interconnected musical and dramatic ideas. The final destination was altogether magnificent — Beethoven’s groundbreaking third symphony, Eroica.
This intriguing evening began with Beethoven’s finale to Die Geschöpfe Des Prometheus (The Creatures Of Prometheus), a two-act ballet choreographed by Salvatore Viganò, and first performed on 28 March, 1801, at the Vienna Hofburg Theater. Though a few critics of the day complained that Beethoven’s music was so intellectually demanding that it overwhelmed the dancing, the public reception was more forgiving, and the ballet enjoyed reasonable success with 28 performances over the next two seasons.
Viganò called the work a ‘heroic allegorical’ drama, which presents the mythological figure of Prometheus as a noble figure, driven to eradicate the ignorance of human beings. With the help of Apollo and the Muses, he leads two statues into experiencing human passions, giving them philosophy, knowledge of the arts, and morals.
For the ballet’s finale, Beethoven drew on the anglaise, a popular social dance at the time. The dominant ideas resonate with prophetic significance: a bass line and melodic theme that were clearly lasting favorites for the composer. He would use them again in his set of 12 Contredances and in his Op.35 piano variations (Eroica Variations), both written in 1802, and to a far greater extent in the finale of his third symphony, from 1803-1804. Here, the ensemble articulated all of the breezy energy of the ballet finale with scintillating clarity.
After this brief but cheerful moment of light came considerably more challenging, darker realms. Gerhardt Zimmermann introduced Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen (1945) with astute and sensitive observations about the themes that threaded through the program. Zimmermann characterized Strauss’s mournful solemnity — strikingly similar to Beethoven’s iconic funeral march in Eroica’s second movement — as an expression of unmitigated hopelessness. In Strauss’s final measures, he directly quoted Beethoven’s theme, and made a notation on the score, ‘In Memoriam!’ While those words can certainly be regarded as grateful acknowledgement of the composer’s influence, it’s also fair to see them as implacable grief over the wartime collapse of an entire culture. When Strauss heard that the Weimar and Munich opera houses had been destroyed, he wrote, ‘it was the greatest catastrophe of my life; there is no possible consolation, and, at my age, no hope.’
Have you ever stood on an ocean shore long enough to be hypnotized by the waves coming in? Were you awed by the constant slow swelling, majestic cresting, and whooshing as they fell—over and over again, for what seemed like an eternity? In some ways, listening to the 23 solo strings navigate this profoundly moving work was like that.
On this occasion, all but the five cello players performed while standing — a haunting evocation of a funeral procession. Strauss’s score is a masterpiece of intricate chromaticism and complex textures, all intertwined and washing over in relentless, alternating cycles of dramatic crescendos countered with passages of contemplation. The ensemble’s reading was reverent and cohesive, and yet another demonstration of the prowess and sonority of the CSO strings.
That same depth of artistry was multiplied and intensified in the orchestra’s radiant Eroica. It felt as if the evening’s ideas, colors, and moods had congealed so completely with Zimmermann, that the orchestra became an embodiment of Beethoven himself, if such a thing were possible.
Beethoven found hope and joy even in the tragedy of his encroaching deafness and political tumult of his day. He was both a Promethean visionary drawn to bringing enlightenment to humanity, and a romantic revolutionary who changed the face of symphonic music. That the Canton players could so beautifully impart such sensations was itself a heroic act.