INTERACTIVE (Rate the Review) . "In Search of Beethoven"

"I have two impressions of Beethoven: a large brain and an equally large heart. These two elements often fight against each other, but frequently they love each other, too. There is so much love, so much empathy and ability to endure suffering. All this comes from his heart."
~~ Conductor - Fabio Luisi,
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
on Missa Solemnis

The extent to which composer Ludvig van Beethoven jarred the late Classical Period of music with a new approach to expressive possibilities has probably not been repeated by even the greatest masters of musical composition who followed him. There are, after all, few such transformative figures who changed the character and framework of what was the accepted musical language of the time.

In part, he accomplished this by introducing a profundity and influence that his contemporaries, for all their respect for his work, couldn't fully appreciate for lack of historical perspective. In their midst was a man who pointed the way to a future that didn't allow for a look back. Drawing room chamber recitals sponsored by royalty and great symphonies to commemorate a hero would never be the same. There was "a new creativity, a new explosive force" in music, says conductor Frans Bruggen.

It's small wonder, therefore, that three centuries later, he's been the subject of movies that would try to capture the man and his accomplishment, or the man and one of the women he strove to marry. Almost all movie biographies attempted about him have gone to the cemetary of failed biopics of great artists, falling apart by virtue of their emphasis on mass consumption and commercial returns in lieu of an understanding of what made this great figure so astounding. Such misguided efforts, from 1936's "Beethoven's Great Love" to 1994's "Immortal Beloved" and 2006's new angle on the subject, "Copying Beethoven" then, add to the trashheap of romantic oblivion and virtually nothing to the edification of the inquiring mind.

Documentarian Phil Grabsky herewith, on the other hand, turns that around by working within a medium that prospers in an atmosphere of historical fact. This is not where the big bucks lay. The riches to be derived from this kind of endeavor are counted in the currency of understanding, appreciation and cultural awareness.

Here, in the second of his "In Search of..." series, he gives the music lover all that, plus the exaltation of the pieces played, mere "tastes" though they may be. And, instead of fixating on a limited slice of a subject's life so that it might be dramatized for a studio film with a big star, the narrative flow gives an honest and documented sense of the entirety of the man's life and the significance of a life's work that is as dramatic as any ever composed. From the sheer inclusivity of it, I can't imagine anything more of significance about this composer that could have been added to this 139 minute dissertation that would have made it more effective.

Assuring that result is the expertise of the talking heads and excellent performances from one or two players of a sonata to full orchestras and choruses. Speakers relate the composer's disappointments, his triumphs and his day-to-day concerns. In one such detail, we learn of Herr Beethoven's strained relationship with his landlord and lodging neighbor in Vienna, described in a letter narrated by Juliet Stevenson. Such issues reminds us that the person who wrote the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies wasn't residing on a plane somewhere beyond our gravity field. In extra-musical affairs, this Viennese public servant was a common man, despite what he was doing at his piano and on his score sheets. It's equally fair to say that what was going on in the creative cauldron of his mind made Beethoven as beyond common as a man can be.

Within Grabsy's pattern of presentation there is a section of a piece that he has recorded in public and private performances. This footage is intercut with one of its musician's or conductor's verbal interpretations of the piece, what it tells them about the state of the composer's mind when he wrote it, and the particular technical difficulties or pure enchantments of playing it. Erudite scholars and historians introduce or follow the section with scholarly perspective, ofttimes supported by a reading of a letter that illuminates the composer's state of mind (or passion) while composing it. In short, the study is musically and educationally full of juice.

Violinist Janine Jansen refers, after playing the "Kreutzer" sonata, to the "boiling tension" of Beethoven's life. Conductor Gianandrea Noseda considers the "Eroica"--initially dedicated to Napoleon--"immensely ambitious--a monster!" Historian Cliff Eisen tells us of the master's growing deafness, while historian Ilona Schmiel gives revelatory insight into the subject's legendary disappointments with women. Pianist Emanuel Ax explains Beethoven's invention of the rapid playing up or down the scale (not the glissando), pointing out that he did so with an impishness only a proficient composing pianist could dispense--"because he was able to play it and to annoy those pianists who couldn't."

Grabsky's first installment of his series was "In Search of Mozart," which was not dissimilar in its ambition to reveal a musical giant in greater detail than has ever been done in the film medium. Together, as comparable definitive works, they dispel and, perhaps, prevent distortions about their subjects that have marred past biopics trading in the sometimes distasteful fruits of dramatic license.

We therefore hope that the documentarian's searches aren't over. The benefits of his Herculean and exhaustive coverage are vast, providing a resource of virtual experience of subjects whose time upon the planet have been obscured by the mists of centuries past and the scarcity of records. While detractors might complain of the length of this film, the knowledge it imparts is high treasure to student, academic and Beethoven worshipper alike.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Ludvig van Beethoven
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