Friday, July 2, 2010

Mini-Review: In Search of Beethoven

Directed by Philip Grabsky. 2009.

Ludwig van Beethoven is almost certainly the most intimidating of composers. The scale, complexity, and sheer force of his music overwhelm the listener. The image of the Olympian Beethoven triumphing over deafness, isolation, and the long shadows of his predecessors overwhelms the historian. Yet we ought not to feel distant from the composer who left so much of himself in his music, music which shows us not the caricature of the irascible genius but a whole man: witty, rambunctious, despondent, elated, introspective.Yet Beethoven is still difficult to bring to the screen either in drama or a documentary. In the latter case, then, play too much music and the dialogue feels burdensome. Play too little and you create a lecture. How many experts do you call in? How many pans over the dozen still portraits can you make? Which letters do you quote? Overall, how do you bring Ludwig van Beethoven into focus?

Philip Grabsky's "In Search of Beethoven" attempts this challenge, exploring Beethoven's life and music chronologically over nearly two and a half hours with the help of many musicologists, historians, and performers. The script competently traces Beethoven's life from his birth in Bonn in 1770 through his career in Vienna. We see Beethoven as a son struggling to support his fracturing family, an eager student of Haydn's, a dashing virtuoso, and a composer determined to make his mark. 

While this biographical outline is adequate it serves mostly to stitch together the interviews with performers and scholars. These little interviews I enjoyed quite a bit. They focus on specific sections or aspects of particular pieces and are rather little introductions to the many Beethoven pieces performed. We hear from scholars like Cliff Eisen, conductors like Riccardo Chailly, Roger Norrington, and Gianandrea Noseda, and performers from Emanuel Ax to Janine Jansen. The performers and conductors each discuss the challenges of performing Beethoven as well as bring their own metaphors to explain these pieces. Emmanuel Ax was easily the most enjoyable to watch, discussing the curious fingering of the second piano sonata. He is so affable and insightful in his segment one wishes he was more prominently featured. Likewise Kristian Bezuidenhout beautifully explains the genius of the opening to the Fourth Piano Concerto.

While the film does focus on the significance of Beethoven as a composer and cultural figure I found the length of the film and it's segmented structure do not create a monumental image of Beethoven. Rather said length and structure and the variety of pieces and performers contribute to a sort of multi-faceted  "search for Beethoven," coming at this complicated man and his art from many angles. Because of this appropriateness of structure to the task at hand I think the film overcomes the challenges we mentioned above and does bring us closer to the composer. "In Search of Beethoven" does not give us a "complete Beethoven" to meet, but it suggests that he and his music are worth spending a lifetime getting to know.

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