Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Search of Beethoven's genius


You don’t have to be a fan of classical music to know and have enjoyed Ludwig van Beethoven’s music. Whether it’s Symphony No.9 in Clockwork Orange or the 5th in Picnic at Hanging Rock or numerous others movie scores, it has popular appeal beyond the concert hall or classic CD collection. Moonlight Sonata, Ode to Joy and many more are generally recognised.

As a follow-up to In Search of Mozart, Phil Grabsky brings us a monumental 139 minute tribute to Ludwig van Beethoven. In Search of Beethoven is detailed, informative, entertaining and thought provoking with a comprehensive, chronological introduction to his life and his works. There are 55 performances from some of the world’s best orchestras and artists.

However, it’s too long for the cinema. Long enough to make a worthy three part TV series. There are too many talking heads. Perhaps Grabsky didn’t want to offend any of the multitudes of experts by leaving them out.

It’s beautifully filmed but relies heavily on the clichés of this documentary genre. It isn’t easy to match the aural majesty with enough visual splendours. Inevitably it falls back on: orchestras in every state of rehearsal or performance; close ups of pianists, cellists and other performers; the rear view of numerous conductors' torsos; paintings interspersed with modern day exteriors of Vienna and similar locales. He also seems to favour chopping off the tops of heads unless they are entrants in the competition for the most disheveled male Beet hairstyle.

Fidelio, Beethoven’s only finished opera, brings some much needed drama and visual engagement.

Juliet Stevenson’s narration is crisp and fresh, perhaps too detached at times given the passionate nature of the subject.

Mercifully Grabsky has steered clear of re-enactments. Nor has the use of David Dawson as Beethoven’s voice been overdone. In fact more of the story in Beethoven's own words might have helped our understanding of his true character. The filmmakers’ claim that it uncovers the myth of the “heroic, tormented figure battling to overcome his tragic fate, struck down by deafness, who searched for his 'immortal beloved' but remained unmarried. It delves beyond the image of the tortured, cantankerous, unhinged personality, to reveal someone quite different and far more interesting.”

However, this search for the real person falls short. We do not really get into Beethoven’s heart or mind. In fact we learn more about his drinking habits than his attitudes to women, marriage or children. There is little revealing material from his own writing or those who were close to him such as his nephew or his romantic interests.

Don’t be put off. Watch this one for the joy of the music.

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