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Documenting the lives of Beethoven and Mozart

DVD Review: In Search of Beethoven and In Search of Mozart: Special Collector’s Edition

Those of you who have been looking for Mozart and Beethoven lo these many years are not alone; film director Phil Grabsky has been searching for them as well and the results, his two documentaries—In Search of Mozart and In Search of Beethoven—are now available in a three-DVD special collector’s edition. Filmed, written, and directed by Grabsky, they feature narration by Juliet Stevenson, a variety of talking heads, and most important, some brilliant performances by some of the world’s finest musicians. The glory of Mozart and Beethoven is the music. Grabsky’s films honor the music.

It is true that the music is represented by excerpts, and there are certainly those who would prefer longer excerpts, or complete works. No doubt, more music wouldn’t hurt. I can’t imagine anyone buying this set complaining there was too much of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto or Beethoven’s “Emperor.” Still as Grabsky points out in an interview included as an extra, they had hours and hours of film. A choice had to be made between longer extracts from fewer works or a more comprehensive selection from the composer’s canon. He chose the latter. These composers were nothing if not prolific, and it really would not be possible to present a reasonable selection of the wide range of their work if extended passages were used.

As it is, the films start with the composers’ earliest compositions and move chronologically through the music sampling the lesser works as well as the masterpieces. Viewers can at least get a taste, and if anything particularly appeals to them there are always recordings available. Indeed, if the films get people interested enough to buy a CD or download a sonata clearly they have done at least one of their jobs.

There is nothing particularly innovative in the presentation of material. Both follow the lives and careers of the composers chronologically, although each uses one of the very last works to begin. They review what is known about the men’s childhoods, concentrating on their reputations as prodigies, and emphasizing their activities as performers as well as composers. They talk about their struggles to earn a living, their personal lives, and their professional success. Those whose knowledge of them is limited to Amadeus and Immortal Beloved will find a good deal of the mythology surrounding the composers debunked. If I remember correctly, Salieri isn’t even mentioned in In Search of Mozart and Beethoven’s beloved turns out to be only one of many mortal beloveds over the years.

Analysis and appreciation of the music is provided by musicians, musicologists, and critics. Some of it is technical, as for example when piano virtuoso Emmanuel Ax explains the difficulty of playing a passage in one of the sonatas with one hand as called for in Beethoven’s fingering notations. Some of it is impressionistic, as when a variety of conductors describe the revolutionary impact of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. In general there is nothing so technical as to lose the novice, and nothing so simplistic as to bore the more knowledgeable. More often than not it is truly illuminating to hear what people like Roger Norrington, Renee Fleming, and Ronald Brautigam have to say.

Visuals for the biographical portions concentrate on paintings, closeups of building exteriors and interiors, and even some natural landscape shots. The Mozart film includes a lot of footage of modern cities with streets clogged with autos and all the other accoutrements of modern life. This can be disconcerting at times. The Beethoven film avoids that kind of thing altogether. There is also a good deal of filmed performance. Closeup shots of pianists’ fingers hurtling over the keys can be fascinating. Portions of scenes from operas like Fidelio and The Magic Flute add variety. The footage of the Orchestra of the 18th Century’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is spectacular. The entrance of the basso from the back of the orchestra and chorus at the start of the choral passage in the last movement is a dramatic coup de théâtre.

Each film includes an interview with the director, and a trailer. In Search of Mozart runs 128 minutes, the Beethoven 139. Subtitles in German, Italian, and French are available. The extras for In Search of Beethoven are on a separate disc, and include performances of complete movements from half a dozen pieces, including a performance of the “Pathetique” sonata, deleted scenes, and a trip to the editing room.

These are two excellent films. They are both informative and entertaining. There is gossip that will titillate the tyro—Mozart’s scatological correspondence, Beethoven’s hygiene. There are moments in performance that will bring a smile—Ronald Brautigaum’s struggles with one of the early Beethoven pieces. There are moments that will bring a lump to your throat—the Vienna Symphony’s performance of the Missa Solemnis, the scenes from Fidelio. This is a set that will be a welcome addition to the collection of any music lover.

About Jack Goodstein

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