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"In Search of Beethoven"
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.
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.
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.
~~ Jules Brenner