'In Search of Beethoven'

Pic strikes a deft balance between words and music, commentary and concertos.

A notable improvement over “In Search of Mozart,” documaker Phil Grabsky’s previous biographical portrait of a legendary composer, “In Search of Beethoven” manages a much defter balance between words and music, commentary and concertos. Having enjoyed a record-breaking run at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center (where it opened July 10), this beautifully lensed and intelligently crafted pic should continue to attract upscale ticketbuyers in limited gigs beginning in New York, Cleveland and Los Angeles, and the already available DVD will score with classical music buffs and as a teaching tool in introductory-level courses. British production is playing theatrical engagements on home turf as well.

As he did in “Mozart,” Grabsky offers talking-head interviews and dramatic readings of old letters as counterpoint to a near-nonstop soundtrack of his subject’s greatest hits. (Much of the pic was shot on locations where Beethoven lived and worked.) The musical performances — ranging from the aching melancholy of “Moonlight Sonata” to the sublime transcendence of Symphony No. 9 — are impeccable.

This time out, however, the helmer — again capably aided by narrator Juliet Stevenson — infuses his storytelling with a compelling sense of drama and elicits more interesting observations from a select group of musicians (many of whom perform), historians and musicologists.

Tracing the composer’s life from his youth in Bonn as the son of a court musician, through his heyday as the greatest virtuoso of early 19th-century Vienna, Grabsky depicts an often tormented and tragic figure who, according to the onscreen testimony of some experts, denied himself the escape of suicide only because he felt he had too much music to produce.

“In Search of Beethoven” affectingly deals with the composer’s increasing deafness and romantic disappointments. (Royal Shakespeare Company vet David Dawson reads passages from Beethoven’s letters.) Just as important, however, the pic also finds elements of rich humor in Beethoven’s life and art.

Pianist Emanuel Ax marvels that Beethoven “must have had hands that were quite large, or that were capable of being spread out,” and deliberately wrote music that other pianists with smaller hands would find quite difficult to play. (Later in his life, Ax notes, Beethoven coped with his failing hearing by “writing to piano makers, asking them to make pianos bigger, stronger, louder.”)

Conductor Roger Norrington finds Symphony No. 3 every bit as challenging as Beethoven’s keyboard pieces, calling it “immensely ambitious — a monster.” Another conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, smiles as he considers the initial impact Symphony No. 5 must have had during its 1808 premiere performance. Then as now, he says, playing the famous four opening notes “is like to give an upper-cut to the audience.”

“In Search of Beethoven” is far too genteel to make a similarly powerful impression on viewers. But like many works in a minor key, it has a way of commanding and sustaining attention.

In Search of Beethoven

U.K.

Production

A Seventh Art (in U.S./U.K.) release of a Seventh Art production in association with Sky Arts. Produced by Phil Grabsky. Executive producer, John Cassy. Directed, written by Phil Grabsky.

Crew

Camera (color), Grabsky; editor, Phil Reynolds; sound, Grabsky, Chris Wright; associate producer, Nicky Thomas. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, Sept. 20, 2009. Running time: 139 MIN.

With

Jonathan Bliss, Louis Langree, Gianandrea Noseda, Sir Roger Norrington, Lars Vogt, Emanuel Ax. Narrators: Juliet Stevenson, David Dawson.
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