In Search of Mozart (DVD)

0 of 5 stars

In Search of Mozart, a film by Phil Grabsky for the 250th-anniversary of Mozart’s birth (on 27 January 2006)

Narrated by Juliet Stevenson and featuring, amongst others, Sir Thomas Allen, Frans Brüggen, Renée Fleming, Magdalena Kožená, Lang Lang, Janine Jansen, Sir Charles Mackerras and Sir Roger Norrington; and Sam West as the voice of Mozart

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: February 2006
Duration: 2 hours 8 minutes plus bonus features

At the end of this lengthy biographical discourse, director Phil Grabsky gives a half-hour-long interview. This is everything an interview should be – even to the excellent technique of cutting out the interviewer and having Grabsky merely repeat each question before replying to it. The interview is a huge success because Grabsky painstakingly explains every detail of his approach. He commences by admitting his lack of general musical knowledge, indeed he started at a considerable disadvantage since it seems that he only knew about Mozart through Peter Schaffer’s play “Amadeus” and then only in the filmed version. Clearly it took him only a short time to realise that this was splendid drama but very shaky history. Grabsky’s immersion into the world of Mozart was clearly a brilliantly successful crash-course in musical appreciation. For someone exposed so late to the wonders of 18th-century music to be talking with huge enthusiasm about such composers as J.C. Bach, Cannabich or Benda makes it clear that he has gone into the subject at great depth.

The basic tenet of his approach was based on chronology and it works beautifully. It seems that he has permitted himself to be taken along by the expertise of the commentators and musicians that he has chosen to assist him. In the interview he said that his approach to the famous names appearing in the film was simply to ask, “will you help me?” The musicologists and historians are to the fore in explaining Mozart’s early life, the performing musicians appear both as executants and commentators towards the end. The whole film is linked by music. The convention of representing the city or town under discussion by portraying it through modern film footage is adhered to (this is often done nowadays in documentary filming) but it is liberally spiced with period drawings of the same surroundings. Modern films of Mozart’s original residences are used to supplement this. Every new scene has a suitable musical theme to introduce the particular change of circumstance. Commentary apart, it scarcely stops and the flow from one sequence into another is tremendously successful in creating the feeling of the period under discussion. Only once did there seem to be a minor musical irrelevance. Bayan Northcott correctly suggested that the real value to the young Mozart was meeting his peers during his travels through Europe and to England with his father. It seems a mistake at that point to have featured a portrait of Haydn (whom Mozart did not meet until many years later) to the accompaniment of Haydn’s C major Cello Concerto which probably had not yet been composed and would certainly not have been performed outside the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time.

In terms of cross-fading, the audio tracks are brilliantly edited, there are many subtle fades from one work to another. One is never aware of the change, yet to choose the right moment and to ensure that the keys match must have taken great skill by highly musical technicians. I especially liked the conjunction of the end of an illustration by Imogen Cooper in her cosy room flowing into a concert performance at exactly the same tempo and key (and indeed acoustic) as the end of the example.

The excerpts are rarely long but continuity is the essence of this film. As for the choice of music the proportions are mostly acceptable. Opera is certainly given preference but opera is a visual experience and DVD is a visual medium so it is understandable that the element of music with the more pictorial aspects should be given preference. Concertos are given a good deal of space too. The remainder of the composer’s output is treated less generously. The string quartets have a fair number of examples and there is some keyboard music, notably the fascinating early pieces – marvels of skill from a child who commenced composing at the age of five. Regrettably the symphonies get short shrift. There are no long excerpts and few early examples apart from symphonies 1 and 10. The remarkable number 25 and the popular 29 get brief showings, number 31 (Paris) is touched on and there is a little more of the Linz (number 36), but only number 40 occupies more than a minute or two and, even here, the personable conductor Christophe Rousset chooses to analyse the first movement in a romantic manner, explicit about the meaning of the way one phrase replies to another but there is nothing about orchestration or shape or form – key elements in this work of genius.

On the other hand, it is good to have so many different aspects of music explained. The elements thought to be important will be influenced by the personality of the commentator. I might not have chosen to write about Mozart’s music in the way Rousset describes it, but there is room for a variety of approaches – including that of Imogen Cooper who presents the music in a charming almost motherly fashion which I had not encountered since visiting my music teacher when I was about seven.

One questionable assertion leaves me wondering however. This is later on when musicologist Hebe Jeffrey suggests that Mozart was “certainly under five foot”. I certainly need more than the portrait of Mozart to which she refers to convince me of that. A reason to question this assertion soon arrives when the film provides a reproduction of him sitting at a meeting of a Masonic Lodge where he is next to a well-built man. Mozart appears to be substantially taller.

Altogether the number of distinguished musicians taking part is amazing. Occasionally their contributions are frustratingly brief – particularly in the case of Matthias Bamert and Sir Charles Mackerras – but when given the space, Mozart’s music is explained succinctly. In the case of “Don Giovanni”, the opera’s significance is put over brilliantly, the chosen excerpts are superbly appropriate and the whole sequence very moving – especially as it ends with the hero’s descent into hell – the real ending of the opera (the subsequent final moralising scene has always seemed an irrelevance to me).

Opera and its significance in Mozart’s life is probably the strength of this biographical survey. “The Marriage of Figaro”, “Idomeneo” and “Die Zauberflöte” are well assessed too (is it just the passing of the years or is Sarastro rather young these days?). On the other hand I have reservations about the men being dressed in what appears to be 21st-century evening dress in “Il Seraglio”. I can let that pass, but what was the director thinking of when he chose to film a junk production of “Così fan tutte”? How can the viewer be expected to concentrate on the music when we have a woman dressed in a trilby hat, an ill-tied necktie and high-heeled shoes while her companion is dressed in a 1960s’ Kings Road Chelsea suit and men’s socks? In the following scene, the girls wear night-dresses and the men sport ponytails, black shirts and three-quarter length white trousers.

In the whole film this proves to be one of only two major complaints so it is time to bring the other one to attention. Sadly it is a serious flaw. We have reached 1777 and Mozart’s mother accompanies him on a European tour. She writes home to her husband and Mozart writes home to his cousin. For some reason the film-makers have dredged up examples of this correspondence, which include earthy rudeness and have raked out a couple of rather gross examples. Why this should suddenly be imposed on us at this stage is not made clear but it provides an excuse for Joseph Mancal to give us a lecture (in German) on what he calls “toilet humour” of the period. After another example from a Mozart letter, Jonathan Miller, who presumably was hired on account of his expertise as opera director, gives a shabby summing up which attempts to justify this irrelevance by inventing a fictional group of people who might disapprove of such earthiness and then denigrating them. To put it at its mildest, Miller’s contribution at this point is puerile rubbish. Is this the price the film director had to pay for putting so much of the narrative in the hands of ‘experts’? Cut this 4-minute sequence from the film (and that is longer than any sequence afforded to any symphony) and almost everything else is enlightening and challenging.

The camerawork (a vast amount of it being done by the director himself) is interesting and consistent. The photography tends to be very close-up and often a piano concerto is represented by amazingly near pictures of a pianist’s hands. Even the orchestral contributions are mainly filmed from mid-orchestra but, sensibly, the stereo sound is of the conventional type with strings and winds heard from the audience’s perspective. The narrators are closely cropped (this even applies to Phil Grabsky in his supplementary interview). Their faces are presented boldly and the camera scarcely moves back far enough to reveal the top of the head. Not all cameramen would approach filming in this way but the consistency of the approach seems to justify it.

This challenging film captures the attention throughout; there are no dull patches. Occasionally one may wish for a longer example of a musical excerpt but this sacrifice does assist the superb flow. The film is over two hours in length but it seemed nothing like that when viewing because it was interesting from beginning to end. I think Grabsky achieved all the objects that he explained in his interview and I do very much approve of the captions left on the screen at the very end of his film – two simple truths that music-lovers do not always appreciate, especially those who are prepared to accept “Amadeus” as history rather than theatrical drama. They run as follows: HE WAS NOT POISONED NOR WAS HE A PAUPER WHEN HE DIED.

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