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In Search of Beethoven [Phil Grabsky film]

This two-hour documentary film, a sequel to the same director's In Search of Mozart, makes for absorbing viewing at various levels. He seeks to enthuse people about "high art" through the lives and achievements of some of the greatest of greats, hoping to appeal to 12 year-olds, as well as to adults who enjoy their musics but have possibly fought shy of the "classics".

Grabsky is a highly successful, award winning arts & biogaphical film maker, but he is not a musician, so he approaches these biographical films from a generalist's point of view, to tell "the story" of his subject's life and illustrate it with archive material, interviews, and from selected international performances set up for filming with the collaboration of Nicky Thomas for the not-easy organisation, as he explains in the Extra interview included on a second disc.

We also have a discussion in the cutting room with his editor, leaving us in no doubt of the enormous tenacity required to realise Phil Grabsky's visions, and the invidious choices demanded to cut down the footage from 14 hours to two...

Although In Search of Beethoven will have few revelations for many of our readers, it is a compelling journey which we watched straight through pleasurably, even though inevitably baulked by the extreme brevity of most of the musical excerpts. Very lengthy interviews with experts have been cut down, often to just a few sentences. Some of the filming itself is odd, and Grabsky defends his penchant for extreme close-ups filmed with a single static camera. So you may be disconcerted by the swaying of a musician like Vladimir Repin whose violin moves out of shot and then comes back into view again and again. It looks amateurish but is deliberate.

The piano features largely, and we see an occasional fortepiano instead of the more regular Steinway. But there is no judgmental statement as to which is to be preferred (cinema and Sky TV audiences are likely to be more used to modern instruments, so that is a boat to not rock). However, it would be good to know - or be able to see - on what period pianos early music specialist Ronald Brautigam is playing excerpts from some of the sonatas in his studio...

To help you decide if this film, now on DVD, is for you, I recommend reading Classical Source's full and fair review of In Search of Beethoven shown at Barbican Cinema, and seeing Phil Grabsky expatiate his credo on a ten-minute video about his Mozart film and too on line at http://www.insearchofmozart.com/interview.htm .

Peter Grahame Woolf