A Beethoven Journey

Maybe it’s because I spend so much of my life writing about music, reading about music, listening to music and, whenever possible, making music, that I only very seldom actually watch TV about music. (Any opportunity to flop in front of the telly is usually accompanied by an overpowering urge to watch murder mysteries.) So it’s been something of a rare treat this weekend to have the chance to watch Concerto: A Beethoven Journey, Phil Grabsky’s new documentary made over four years, following the performances, recordings and musical adventure of Leif Ove Andsnes in his bid to immerse himself in Beethoven’s music.

Over the course of ninety minutes, we are led on several different, intertwining ‘journeys’ at once: that of Beethoven’s life and career; the progression through the five concertos; Andsnes’s own life and career; and his evolving understanding and engagement, pianistic and spoken, with the pieces in question. There is a great deal to say of all four voyages, and I was left with a sense of having been given a rich and detailed amount of information. The film also, as I think all good documentaries should, left me with questions unanswered, things to explore afterwards.

There are a number of conceits about the construction of this documentary which point to a very particular approach to performance, performers, classical music, and Beethoven. Some of them, I confess, I found rather wearing. For example: why, given Andsnes’s extremely close working relationship with the superb Mahler Chamber Orchestra (to the exclusion of a conductor – he plays and leads himself), did we not hear from any of the players? Why did we have a brief conversation with Gustavo Dudamel, conducting several concerto performances with Andsnes and the L.A. Philharmonic, but not with Vilde Frang, with whom he performed the Kreutzer Sonata in Norway? As Andsnes himself observes, the pieces under discussion are dialogues, complementary conversations – arguments, even. So why were the musicians on both sides of this not allowed to speak? Or the audience? Or the recording engineers?

Also – and yes, I know why they do it, I do, but still – I find it very frustrating when a musical work which is the subject of discussion is used as background to someone talking about it. To be fair, there were some substantial musical examples uninterrupted by chat, and some truly superb playing here. (No wonder the final performance of the Beethoven Project at the Proms was received so rapturously.) And, among the most fascinating discussions, for me, were the sequences in which Andsnes was sat alone at the piano, talking to camera and demonstrating the passages he found the most exciting, intricate, unexpected or moving. But I doubt there are many composers who would claim their compositions to form an appropriate soundtrack to their lives, and that autobiographical assumption made by so many, does, in my opinion at least, oversimplify a far more complex state of affairs.

Portrait of BeethovenAside from Andsnes and Dudamel, the only other speaker who is permitted airtime is… Beethoven. Or at least, Stephan Grothear reading excerpts from Beethoven’s letters. It was wonderful to have these included, and an important reminder of certain aspects of the composer’s personality which are usually underplayed (some of which were also picked up by Andsnes): his business sense, his awareness of international markets and artistic networks, his humanity and humour. Probably my favourite remark of the programme was Andsnes speaking about the finale of the First Concerto op.15: ‘I feel we have missed something if we don’t make people laugh in the concert hall – or at least smile. Because this music is clearly intended to put a smile on peoples’ faces.’ In addition to the letters, the commentary covers a number of other important biographical details and stylistic debates with a light touch: Beethoven’s deafness; his virtuosity as a pianist and improviser; the variety of approaches available to a modern performer with a twenty-first century piano and orchestral set-up, but knowledge of historical practices; the importance of the space in which a performance or recording takes place. And Andsnes’s ruminations on his own life and career, his love affair with music and the fun he has at CD signings, was candid and refreshing.

Is there a certain amount of good old Beethovenian mythologizing going on here? Yes, of course there is. The towering, struggling genius; the idea that he just had to stop writing concertos after the fifth because ‘what do you do after a piece like that?’ and so on. But there is also a deal of effort that has gone into moderating these statements, and Andsnes comes across as an intelligent, thoughtful and sophisticated musician. And after all, Concerto is perhaps most fascinating for what it tells us about his take on this music and its creator.

Viewers who don’t know the repertoire well are guaranteed a fine introduction to the Beethoven concertos. Those who do will come away with real respect for all the musicians involved, and perhaps some new ideas about Beethoven to boot. And even for those of us who usually get their musical kicks away from the TV set – I know now that there’s certainly one set of CDs that need to be added to my listening list as soon as possible.


Concerto: A Beethoven Journey is a Seventh Art production. The film will be in cinemas from 7 September 2015.

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