Beethoven and ballet don’t often turn up in the same sentence, but “The Creatures of Prometheus,” from 1801, was actually the composer’s second dance effort, following his “Ballet of the Knights” in 1791. And though the Overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus” is familiar enough, the rest of the score is rarely performed, so I was pleased to see guest conductor and soloist Christian Zacharias program selections from it Friday on a Boston Symphony Orchestra bill that also included a BSO premiere, Haydn’s Symphony No. 76, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18.
The Haydn symphony, from 1782, and the Mozart concerto, from 1784, share a tendency to hop on one note. The symphony opens festively in E-flat before C-minor clouds appear on the horizon, and throughout Haydn dips into unexpected minor keys. Leading an ensemble of about 40 players with no baton (and with first and second violins massed rather than divided), Zacharias was precise and intense in the outer movements, with just the suggestion of a smile. But he gave the shy country dance of a slow movement an almost tragic weight in its minor-key episodes, and the minuet was full-bodied, with a tipsy waltz trio.
The similarly sunny concerto starts with bird calls and sweet song before turning martial at the end of the first movement. The Andante muses upon strange harmonies; the exuberant 6/8 Allegro finale finds the piano briefly trying to coax the orchestra into 2/4. Here, too, I wish Zacharias, who conducted from the piano, had been more yielding in the outer movements; here, too, the slow movement, in a sad G minor, was the success, rich and strange.
In the libretto Beethoven was given, the creatures of Prometheus are clay statues that the Titan brings to life. But when he discovers that his creations have no souls and no understanding of the arts, he takes them to Parnassus to be schooled by Apollo. Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy, is annoyed and kills Prometheus, but Thalia, Muse of Comedy, brings him back to life.
Zacharias performed the Overture and numbers 1, 3, 5, 9, 14, 15, and 16 — a little more than half the complete score, which runs just over an hour. It’s must-hear Beethoven, with many hints of symphonies to come, not least in the finale, No. 16, whose contradance tune would, two years later, turn up in the last movement of the composer’s “Eroica.” And in Zacharias’s reading I heard all the gratifying contrast that I’d missed in the Haydn and Mozart: dramatic opening chords, a reverent hymn tune, graceful skipping and swaying, some delectable solos from harp, flute, bassoon, and oboe in No. 5, a stirring finale, and, best of all, a real dance pulse.