(French, Russian, Flemish and English dialogue)
One of the best docus about classical music ever made, and probably the best about the limits of virtuosity, “The Winners” scores by looking at what happened to four brilliant musicians who won a major European competition, and then, for complicated reasons, went on to less-than-stellar careers. The OK-looking pic needs a 35mm blowup (especially for the sake of its sound) to get major play on the specialized circuit, but specificity is exactly what makes it so valuable for the musically minded. On tape or film, it should be mandatory viewing for music students — especially ones with any competitiveness in their blood.
Belgium’s Queen Elizabeth Competition, held in Brussels, has given incandescent young performers on piano and violin a solid start — especially Russians, such as David Oistrakh and Vladimir Ashkenazy, who previously were little known in the West. But what about first-prize ponies, asks documaker Paul Cohen, we’ve never heard from since? Helmer, whose last outing was “Part-Time God,” an innovative look at scientific philosophy, focuses on temporary heroes of the 1950s and ’60s — men who had all the earmarks of genius but subsequently failed to live up to their promise.
Most intriguing is Philipp Hirschhorn, a dazzling violinist whose 1967 victory seemed destined to make him a household name. Byronically handsome in white tie and tails, he’s seen in TV footage from the early ’70s, a time when some conductors and impresarios saw him as the new Paganini. It wasn’t to be, of course. A combination of arrogance, self-contempt, and debilitating illness knocked him out of the race; he switched to teaching and then died in 1996, shortly after interviews were shot. Tart comments from top contemporaries, including cellist Mischa Maisky and violinist Gidon Kremer (who came in a bitter third to Hirschhorn’s first), put his strange career in context.
A gentler tale is that of Berl Senofsky, a Russian-born fiddler who grew up in the States and entered the contest in 1956 “just to see where (he) was” in the realm of pros. Already over age 30 at the time, he didn’t have the stomach for the tour grind and also reverted to teaching, which pic shows him doing beautifully at a Baltimore academy.
More prosaic still is the fate of violinist Mikhail Bezverkhny, a younger Russian whose 1976 win went nowhere, thanks to his bad attitude and plenty of run-ins with Soviet authorities. He now lives in Brussels, where antagonisms with neighbors force him to practice in an old Citroen van. Although he still plays with probing intelligence, we see from the way he bullies his accompanist wife why he has garnered few friends in the concert and recording worlds.
Yevgeny Moguilevsky, the sole pianist represented here, also got the cold shoulder from commissars, mostly because their own darling didn’t win in 1964; when he returned to Moscow, the KGB told his parents to pick him up at the airport. He mounted a decent career anyway, but every attempt to break through abroad was thwarted, usually at the last moment. Now, Moguilevsky is attempting a latter-day siege on the West, but footage suggests he’s a little too easygoing — or soul-broken, as his wife angrily implies — to stand much of a chance in the CD-saturated race.
Although elements of politics, bad timing and anti-Semitism rear their disruptive heads, pic mostly sticks to psychology of subjects to explain their unpredicted paths. Archival footage and stills, plus detailed side trips into questions of personality and technique reveal specifics about making music, complete with challenges and rewards that are notably elusive for most docus and biopics.
Outside of its own natural place in upper-level pedagogy, “The Winners” will make gripping fare for pubcasting viewers in all language groups. Most poignant moment comes when the soon-to-be-late Hirschhorn stares ruefully at a photo taken just after he received the Queen Elizabeth medal. “That guy knows that there is no happy end,” he sighs, “no grand finale.”