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The Emperor of the Mind

New York
Cinema Village Theatre
09/23/2009 -  
Phil Grabsky: In Search of Beethoven
Sir Roger Norrington, Riccardo Chailly, Claudio Abbado, Fabio Luisi, Frans Brüggen, Ronald Brautigam, Hélène Grimaud, Vadim Repin, Janine Jansen, Paul Lewis, Lars Vogt, Emanuel Ax etc.
Written, directed and produced by Phil Grabsky
Narrated by Juliet Stephenson

The Beethoven statue in Bonn, Germany (© 7th Arts Productions)

In the first minute of Phil Grabsky’s newest documentary, an artist says, over the notes of the Fourth Piano Concerto, “I think that Beethoven is the greatest composer in history.” One sighs and thinks, “Oh, it’s going to be that kind of a movie. A hagiographical non-study of old Lud.”

So many trashy movies have been made of poor scowling Beethoven that one expects little. So we fortunate ConcertoNet readers can go back to our record collections.

But Phil Grabsky, who also directed In Search of Mozart and the incredible Afghan study, The Boy Who Played On the Buddhas of Bamyenuu, is no ordinary documentary director. Yes, it is a chronological study. Yet over two-plus hours, Grabsky not only proves his case, but does it with facts, daring, the most splendid European locations shots, and the world’s greatest musicians playing a lifetime of music by the composer.

Far from a hagiography, we learn almost from the beginning that the “scowling” Beethoven could be a very gracious host. The “slovenly ” Beethoven longed to be a fashion plate. The “republican” Beethoven had an obsession with aristocratic ladies. The innovative Beethoven had such a competitive spirit that he longed to outdo those other giants, Mozart and Haydn. And the Prometheus who longed for truth, tried to scam both Josef Haydn and the Elector of Bonn out of money!!

But these are trivial anecdotes for a movie which dwells on music, the settings which make the music, and today’s artists who comment knowingly on the composer. Emanuel Ax demonstrates that a Beethoven octave run was written for right hand only–and that Ax, like other pianists, has to cheat with both hands. Conductor Riccardo Chailly conducts the first chord of the First Symphony, describing it as a “shock”. Other show the difference between a Mozart (the master of symmetry) and Beethoven, whose themes build upon each other, breaking boundaries.

But most telling is Beethoven’s own quote (which I cannot verify anywhere else), that “Napoleon may be the Emperor of the world, but I am the Emperor of the mind.”

Visually, In Search of Beethoven works on three levels. First are the gorgeous settings. The lithographs and paintings of old Bonn and Vienna, the concert halls still used today, the pictures of forests (and a leitmotif of a tree branch in different seasons). Second are illustrations of Beethoven’s own mind. We see where he didn’t simply “remove” the name Napoleon from the first page of the Third Symphony, he ripped it out with obvious violence.

Then too Lars Vogt points to the original score of the last piano sonata, where Beethoven didn’t simply change notes, he scrawled, he pushed the pen as hard as possible. We all learned in school that Mozart was the speediest Classical composer. But seeing those manuscripts of Beethoven, we understand that speed is relative, that his mind ran too fast for his pen to catch up!!

Third are the musicians themselves. Mr. Grabsky is intrigued with the hands of an artist, and his camera catches the most telling piano studies by Ax, Voigt, and Hélène Grimaud (doing the Fourth with Eschenbach). An unshaven Jonathan Biss sits down with an orchestra under Roger Norrington and plays a faultless opening from the Second Piano Concerto.

Frans Brüggen makes the most dynamic Fifth I’ve yet heard, along with the Ninth.The extended scenes from Leonora (before it became Fidelio) were produced in Madrid by Claudio Abbado, and might be the greatest performance since Furtwängler.

Are there flaws in this film? Very few. The anecdote of Beethoven refusing to salute to an aristocrat is told straight, though we know now this is apocryphal. Fidelio, yes, did appeal to Beethoven, but just about everybody was writing “escape” operas in those post-French Revolutionary days.

The usual moviegoers will say that it goes on too long. I think that ConcertoNet readers will find great artists playing and describing their notes has no time limits at all.

To his credit, the dedicated Mr. Grabsky is going around the world to attend the film. He was gracious and knowledgeable at my viewing, but the film speaks for itself with cerebral surprise, raw energy, and the wonders of a man for all centuries.

Harry Rolnick



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