Feature Review – In Search of Beethoven [A Film by Phil Grabsky]

Written by: Nick Breckenfield

In Search of Beethoven

A film by Phil Grabsky

Barbican Hall, London

Monday, 30 March, 2009

At over two hours (here presented with an interval), Phil Grabsky has returned to 200 years ago to discover Beethoven in the same way as he went “In Search of Mozart”.

Not, as he said himself in the short Q&A session following this world première screening in the Barbican Hall, that he had intended to immediately return to the intricacies of filming a composer’s life-story after his experience on Mozart. But, during the first film, he had heard a number of times film that Mozart was not necessarily the greatest composer. What, indeed, about Beethoven?

With his tried and tested formula, he revisited some of the interviewees from the first film and found many new ones. The statistics are impressive: 17 orchestra/conducting partnerships seen or heard, 14 pianists, four violinists, four cellists, six singers, nine ‘experts’ and one string quartet – the Endellion. With each interviewee Grabsky recorded conversations between two and four hours long, and he filmed performances of Beethoven symphonies, nearly all the concertos and many other works, with a single static camera, which is a world away from the fancy multi-angle fades and merges you get in televised concerts nowadays.

At one point, Grabsky admitted the cut of the film ran to 14 hours, and it has taken nine months solid Monday-to-Friday grind, with editor Phil Reynolds, to cut it down to the length of “In Search of Mozart”, although a host of DVD ‘extras’ are promised.

Grabsky doesn’t alter his formula from “In Search of Mozart”. He starts off with a simple chronological approach to discover Beethoven through his life. Contemporary prints of Bonn and, later, Vienna merge with shots of relevant buildings and streets, with an almost constant Beethoven soundtrack weaving the composer’s history together. Once again Juliet Stevenson narrates, with more to do than in the Mozart film as there are not so many characters relating to Mozart’s family’s letters. Where appropriate, actor David Dawson reads Beethoven’s own words (as Sam West had read Mozart’s).

But it is the quality of Grabsky’s collaborators, even in their briefest appearances, which impresses. Louis Langrée, Sir Roger Norrington, Ronald Brautigam, Janine Jansen, Cliff Eisen and Bayan Northcott reprise their roles from ‘Mozart’. Franz Brüggen only appears in the Beethoven film as conductor, leading his Orchestra of the 18th Century in a number of the symphonies, ending with the Ninth in the gloriously opulent confines of Barcelona’s Palau de la Musica.

New to the screen are Jonathan Biss (who performs the Second Piano Concerto with a very laid-back Norrington and Camerata Salzburg), Kristian Bezuidenhout, Lars Vogt, Leif Ove Andsnes and Hélène Grimaud talking about the piano concertos, Emanuel Ax and Paul Lewis discussing the sonatas, Vadim Repin on the violin concerto and cellist David Waterman of the Endellion talking about the string quartets. Commentators include the enthusiastic Jonathan Del Mar, who following his work on the Beethoven symphonies has turned his attention to the string quartets, collaborating with the Endellion on its complete recording and ‘historians’ Nicholas Marston and Barry Cooper.

What comes across is not only a more-balanced view than just ‘Beethoven was a crazy composer’. However expressed – Marston’s view of Beethoven’s cerebral ability to think in complex musical structures when his domestic life was so cluttered, or Del Mar’s amazement of Beethoven’s kindness in writing 20-odd bars of a string quartet for a British visitor, which only turned up in Cornwall in 1999 – Beethoven’s deep humanity shines through. Chris Kraus, the director of “Fidelio” expounds further with a number of clips of his production that was conducted by Claudio Abbado (although the conductor is not seen).

There are some other visual oddities or omissions. With his static camera Grabsky has resisted the urge to follow an instrumentalist, so if they move partially out of shot, Grabsky waits for them to come back. This helps to listen to the piece in question; there are also some wonderful close-ups of strings (particularly cello and double bass) which have a distinctive beauty all of their own.

Also, Riccardo Chailly’s back is the most prominent visual representation of an excerpt from Symphony 7, while Andrew Parrott and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra make an otherwise unmentioned contribution of quite a lot of the Fourth. Grabsky has obviously consciously decided not to litter the film with captioned indications of what work is playing or who is playing it.

I wondered then, apart from unobtrusive alerts to the principal speakers and subtitles for songs or non-English speech, whether Beethoven novices might find themselves adrift. On balance, Grabsky’s decision works well, in that too much information flashed on the screen would be wearing and self-defeating. Instead, “In Search of Beethoven” gives a flavour of the man and his music and, hopefully – like Grabsky admits himself – a world of further discoveries awaits someone who is hooked by the film.

There are some utterly refreshing laugh-out-loud moments. Emanuel Ax sitting at the keyboard pointing out that Beethoven was obviously good at repeated notes because he used them so much and then admitting that those little downward glissandos that Beethoven liked, Ax himself has to fudge. Then there is Roger Norrington’s wonderful little analogy that whereas Mozart was composing for next Saturday, Beethoven was composing for the future; neatly summarising the lengthier repeated comments of Cliff Eisen.

There were some intriguing contributions. Gianandrea Noseda – with his hugely successful Beethoven cycle with his BBC Philharmonic that was a downloadable success a couple of years back – who spoke with almost as much a twinkle in the eye as Ax, and found expert analogies for Beethoven’s music, particularly the champagne-popping joy that erupts in the Fourth Symphony’s first movement. If only Noseda’s conducting technique could be so concentrated and witty! But I now know how he can inspire his musicians with his ideas.

Before seeing either of the Mozart or Beethoven films, I jokingly wondered whether the titles should have been more playful (‘Where is Wolfgang?’ and ‘Looking for Ludwig’), but Grabsky’s admirably keeps close to his search intent with clear, intelligent documentary-making. There’s no wasteful repetition, which beleaguers nearly every television documentary nowadays.

While never pretending to be the whole story, “In Search of Beethoven” deserves every success on its cinema release (Holland and New Zealand first) and continued life on television and DVD.

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