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In Search of Beethoven (2009)

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Ratings: 7.4/10 from 260 users   Metascore: 71/100
Reviews: 8 user | 50 critic | 8 from Metacritic.com

The first truly comprehensive feature length cinema documentary ever made about Beethoven. With over 60 live performances.

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Emanuel Ax ...
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Riccardo Chailly ...
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Alban Gerhardt ...
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Hélène Grimaud ...
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Janine Jansen ...
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The first truly comprehensive feature length cinema documentary ever made about Beethoven. With over 60 live performances. Written by Seventh Art Productions

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'The one film you need to see on Beethoven'


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10 July 2009 (USA)  »

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Provides a context to appreciate both the music and the man
28 September 2009 | by (Vancouver, B.C.) – See all my reviews

Philip Grabsky, whose film In Search of Mozart was one of the highlights of last years' Vancouver International Film Festival, has returned this year with an investigative study of the great 19th century German composer Ludvig Van Beethoven. The documentary, In Search of Beethoven, seen at a VIFF pre-screening, follows the same linear framework as the film about Mozart, sampling sequential compositions of the artist while interspersing the comments of performers, conductors, composers, and music historians such as Emanuel Ax, Hélène Grimaud, Louis Langrée, and Roger Norrington. Performed in the film are snippets of all of Beethoven's nine symphonies, five piano concertos, his only violin concerto, his opera Fidelio, several piano sonatas including the famous "Moonlight" sonata, and several sonatas for violin and piano, beautifully performed by seventeen orchestras, fourteen pianists, four cellists, six singers, and one string quartet. It is a veritable aesthetic feast.

The 138-minute documentary (cut from fourteen hours) explores a unique individual who, while a transformative figure whose music was capable of evoking ecstatic emotions, was a dark, reclusive, and almost unfathomable individual whose cantankerous personality and battles with his growing deafness are legendary. Grabsky follows Beethoven's life from his birth in Bonn in 1750 as the son of a court musician to his adulthood in Vienna where he was quickly recognized as one of the city's most promising musical talents. Developing a reputation as a piano virtuoso, his performing abilities were in great demand yet he also began to be known as a drinker with a personality that could be surly.

With the onset of deafness and a growing frustration with his inability to develop a satisfying and lasting relationship with a woman, Beethoven became depressed and even thought of suicide. In his Heiligenstadt Testament written in 1802 to his brothers Johann and Carl and discovered after his death, he declared that he rejected suicide only because he had to fulfill his destiny to share his music with the world. David Dawson from the Royal Shakespeare Company reads from Beethoven letters, some of which illuminate the composer's state of mind, explore the nature of his illnesses, and discuss his obsessive desire to gain custody of his nephew Karl. The film also mentions the composer's growing indifference to social conventions including the unkempt condition of his person and his general misanthropy, though attempts are made to put his personality problems into perspective.

Unfortunately, however, the spiritual side of Beethoven's nature is left mostly unexplored. Although Grabsky does point out the ethereal nature of some of his later piano sonatas and string quartets, the connection is only tentatively made between his heroic struggle against the afflictions of his life, his ultimate acceptance of them as necessary to his creativity, and the sublime nature of his final works. I would have loved to hear Beethoven quoted in the film saying (as he does in the biography "Beethoven: His Spiritual Development" by J. W. N. Sullivan), "I must despise a world that does not know music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes. I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken." In spite of its limitations, however, In Search of Beethoven takes us beyond the stereotypes of the dishevelled, out-of-control genius and the clichés of films like Immortal Beloved, providing a context to appreciate both the music and the man and the enormous revolution his genius engendered. Conductor Fabio Luisi of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra says it this way: "I have two impressions of Beethoven: a large brain and an equally large heart. These two elements often fight against each other, but frequently they love each other, too. There is so much love, so much empathy and ability to endure suffering. All this comes from his heart."


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