I’ve only just managed to see In Search of Beethoven, and it’s probably nearing the end of its inevitably short season. But it’s still showing in all capital cities as far as I can gather, so I feel duty bound to recommend it. In any case, I’ll grasp any excuse to talk about this topic.
It’s definitely for the fans. By which I mean, Beethoven enthusiasts will get immense pleasure from it. I thought it might be only for the fans, but Margaret Pomerantz gave it four and half stars, and anyone who thinks the Third Symphony is called Heroica probably isn’t an aficionado (David didn’t even flinch at this: score one for me, Nicholas).
A serious intent is signalled from the very opening (see the clip on At The Movies), where a foretaste of appraisals from the experts is backed by hands on a keyboard, playing not the Moonlight Sonata but the Fourth Piano Concerto, which is the most beautiful and profound of Beethoven’s concertos, and by implication the most beautiful and profound concerto ever written.
There are several really good things about the documentary. The first is that it’s a really well executed biography, weaving the threads together — Beethoven’s emotional life, his evolving artistic vision, and his response to the political upheavals of his day, centring on the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquests — into a satisfying fabric.
Then there are the illuminating commentaries on individual pieces from a dazzling procession of eminent conductors and instrumentalists. They are all passionate and interesting, and some are very engaging and funny. Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam gets the first big laugh when he tries his best to perform young Ludwig’s first sonata, written at 12. Emmanuel Ax can’t decide whether Beethoven could really play a certain passage all with his right hand, as his manuscript recommends, or whether it was a joke. One of the musicologists, whose name escapes me, openly admits, regarding the fourth movement of the Ninth, that he doesn’t know what on earth is going on in that weird interlude between the Ode to Joy and the climax. And, like Paul Byrnes
I could watch the French pianist Hélène Grimaud talk for hours about Beethoven or the weather.
It’s also nice to have one’s own humble hypotheses confirmed by competent authorities: that the techtonic fault line between classical and romantic composition can be pinned down, if anywhere, on the Third Piano Concerto; and that the first movement of Eroica is the most perfectly structured symphonic movement of all time.
Finally, there’s the feast of actual music. The reason the film is so long is that it includes samples from almost every major work, and a generally gives a generous helping rather than a pinch. I disagree with Kevin Renny that it’s too long and would have been a ‘worthy three part TV series’. This journey demands some commitment, and few people would have the discipline to plan for three TV sittings and sit still through each of them.
There are excerpts from seven of the symphonies, four of the piano concertos, the violin concerto, triple concerto, Fidelio, Missa Solemnis, a good cross section of the string quartets, piano and violin sonatas, including a mesmerising performance of the Kreutzer Sonata with Itamar Golan and the not unappealing Janine Jensen (I’d happily listen to her prattling about anythng, but here she is playing the last part of the Allegro from the Violin Concerto). To my delight, there was even an analysis of the transcendent Opus 110 and 111 piano sonatas. There’s a full list here.
There were a couple of omissions: Archduke Trio, Mass in C, Hammerklavier Sonata and, most surprisingly, the opening movement of the Emperor Concerto, which has to be the single most characteristic composition of the whole oeuvre; and the slow movement to the Fourth Piano Concerto, surely the bleakest, most unsentimentally, heartrendingly beautiful movement ever written. But one can be too greedy; and there’s always Youtube if you need a booster. Here’s a rendition of that missing slow movement, not from the film, by the aforementioned highly watchable Grimaud.
My only real objection was the choice of David Dawson as the voice of Beethoven, reading his letters. That called for someone gruffer and less posh.