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Cinema Signal: A documentary lesson in clasical music with insights about a clasical giant and his interpreter. MOBILE version |
. "Concerto: A Beethoven Journey"

Sometimes a great lesson afforded by a documentary comes about with a great deal of serendipity. That's what I'd call filmmaker Phil Grabsky finding master pianist Leif Ove Andsnes at a time when the keyboard artist had decided to devote his performance schedule entirely to the work of one composer for four years, calling it "a Beethoven Journey." He was not taking the word "devote" lightly and neither was the British documentarian.

Although Grabsky had made a documentary about the composer ("In Search of Beethoven," 2009) as part of his series on classical masters, a collaboration between the two was a chance not to be passed up, what with multi-talented Andsnes' astute cinematic savvy and expository clarity to go with his fame and talent. Together, then, filmmaker and music maker (award-winners, both) create an album of music that is, as well, a unique biopic/history lesson for Beethoven students and clasical lovers. The prize-winning Norwegian served as pianist, conductor, star and our mentor, uniquely excelling in all duties.

At the start, in a pre-titles prologue, Andsnes defines his reasons for committing to a concentration on one composer for so long as a desire to go deeper in knowledge and understanding of the one he considers the best -- ever. With rare articulation before the camera, he opens the curtain for us on the qualities that move a renowned interpretor of music to study one subject deeply.

"I love so many aspects of [Beethoven's music], the energy, the sound, the drama, the storytelling, the feeling that it's going somewhere, the feeling that (in the scores) there's always somewhere to go," Andsnes says with analytic seriousness and an early sign of his passion.

Grabsky's filmmaking techniques illustrate these qualities that affect a pianist who conducts from the piano stool as he leads the highly esteemed Mahler Chamber Orchestra. With excerpts from a variety of sonatas, symphonies, etc,, the program centers around the five piano concertos as major markers of the Viennese master's development as it plows a new path through the traditions of music.

The film's style is also notable in the way in which a discourse or example at the keyboard by Andsnes, adressing the camera in what might be two of the rooms in his home, perhaps about a transition, key change or the composer's use of musical humor*, may cut precisely on the note to the full orchestral performance of the piece, turning an instructive point into the full majesty of what he had been talking about. Has any teacher ever had such a blackboard to visually illustrate a lesson?

*If you never thought of Beethoven and humor, how Andsnes makes you aware of it is a highlight.

Beethoven's story, both wondrous and tragic, is detailed in excerpts from his diaries and letters, voiced by Stephan Grothgar. This part of the narrative adds a context that is a multiplier of the effect, imparting a deeper understanding of the virtuosity and maturing implications in the music.

The composer is joyous as he writes of the great acclaim he's receiving from the music lovers of late 19th century Vienna despite the fact that he's writing a kind of music they've never heard before (like giving the orchestra a greater role in a concerto than Mozart and his predecessors ever did). As for such a positive reception of something new in music, Stravinsky should have had it so good! But a cloud of destiny darkens the horizon as the young genius writes of his loneliness and, then, of becoming deaf at 29 -- an unimaginable fate for a musical giant.

Andsnes is quick to point out that despite this incredible misfortune, there isn't a note of self-pity in Beethoven's music.

Given total access, Grabsky's camera follows Andsnes everywhere, including all over the stage as the players play, revealing their precise timing and absorption in the score, making the dialogue between them and the soloist so rich and varied, revealing the composer's (and their) brilliance. A frequently used master shot is a down angle on the maestro, his piano with cover removed, surrounded by his musicians. The closeups of Andsnes' hands at the keyboard, nimble and fierce, struck me by their thick muscularity. Thrill-making, organic tools of his profession.

In this collaboration of two multi-talented artists who share a great love of music of the clasical period, Grabsky covers the documentarian portfolio completely (filmed, written and directed by) and gives the recorded music world an arguably definitive new contribution to serious collections. Consider it also a booster shot for those whose play lists have wandered away from one of the most influential classic masters.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Soloist Leif Ove Andsnes, conducting
a Beethoven Concerto from the piano.

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