JWR Articles: Film/DVD - In Search of Mozart (Director/Writer: Phil Grabsky) - December 18, 2009

In Search of Mozart

4.5 4.5
129 min.

Faces, hands and art

Filmmaker Phil Grabsky has done the world an enormous favour by painstakingly and lovingly crafting a musical portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that is worthy of the subject matter. Unlike Milos Forman’s much more fanciful/theatrical Amadeus, this film’s star is the music. Curiously, perhaps unconsciously or subliminally, the opening and closing Viennese snow immediately rekindles a memory of the fictionally poisoned composer’s burial in the 1984 Best Picture winner where his lifeless body was sprinkled with lime dust (cross-reference below).

The cinematic magic created during the seemingly impossible task of, in just over two hours, documenting and celebrating the all-too-brief life, stems from Grabsky’s brilliant use of the camera even as the ear is awash in some of the most deeply moving (covering the entire emotional spectrum) scores ever written. Various portraits of the Salzburg native fill the screen as the music unfolds, while a nearly imperceptible slow zoom-in towards the eyes draws the viewer/listener deep into Mozart’s spirit. As the painters must have realized, what lurked behind them was a one-of-a-kind mind that spent its time on the planet diligently sharing all manner of thoughts, ideas and feelings in a way that anyone, if so inclined, can appreciate. At other times be it piano (e.g., Ronald Brautigam’s soothing performance of Piano Sonata, KV 310; Lang Lang’s somewhat edgy first measures of Piano Concerto, KV 491), viola (Julian Rachlin’s impassioned rendering of the slow movement of the Sinfonia Concertante, KV 364—his eye contact with the bassist speaks volumes) or string quartet (largely the beautifully balanced snippets from the Škampa Quartet), the fingers of the performers take prominence, creating a marvelous flurry of music-making as craft, leaving the result to speak directly on its own. One gets the sense of truly being in the moment of art.

For the many interviews, Grabsky opts to utilize head-shots—again giving a closeness that adds further impact to their comments and observations (“A perfectly normal psychological existence,” says director Jonathan Miller; pianist Leif Ove Andsnes confesses to “goosebumps” in the first movement of Piano Concerto, KV 490 after he and his colleagues in the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra serve up a slightly light syncopation in the exposition)—very nearly creating a kind of conversation between Mozart and his present-day admirers. Filmmaking of this sort is as rare is the genius which inspired it.

With so much material (both visual and sound—excerpts from over 80 works make up the tracks) to work with, a special mention must be made of Phil Reynolds’ truly seamless editing as well as sound recordists Simon Farmer’s and Ben Ormerod’s first-class mix.

Perhaps the only thing missing from all-concerned—be they the artists, historians or musicologists who collectively add much to anyone’s understanding of Mozart’s life and times—is a discussion at any level as to the harmonic implications of the composer’s works. His miracles of modulation (perhaps more at the root of Lada Valešova’s somewhat simplistic “asking questions” explanation regarding the pathos of Piano Sonata, KV 333) and choice of tonality (delving into the use of D Minor for the likes of Don Giovanni, Requiem, String Quartet, KV 421 and the 20th Piano Concerto could make a film on its own) are left for another day.

That quibble aside, this exemplary production (featuring the considerable artistry of clarinetist Erich Hoeprich—at beginning and end—adds both musical continuity and provides extra, much-wanted measures even as the case for employing “original” instruments is given a considerable boost) is a must for music lovers and neophytes alike. Being available in seven languages can only expand its audience just as the bonus-feature interview with Grabsky gives still more depth to the package. JWR

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Director/Writer - Phil Grabsky
Cinematography - Phil Grabsky
Editor - Phil Reynolds
Sound Recordist - Simon Farmer
Sound Editor - Ben Ormerod
Clarinet - Erich Hoeprich
Viola - Julian Rachlin
Narrator - Juliet Stevenson
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