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
"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.
~~ Jules Brenner