Review: In Search of Chopin (2014)

In Search of Chopin (2014)

Directed by: Phil Grabsky | 110 minutes | documentary | Starring: Leif Ove Andsnes, Daniel Barenboim, Ronald Brautigam, Hershey Felder, Kevin Kenner, Jeremy Siepmann, Lars Vogt

Phil Grabsky has created an ambitious and rather impressive four-part series, which started in 2006 with ‘In Search of Mozart’. In these documentaries he goes in search of (four of) the greatest composers in Classical music history. In 2009 ‘In Search of Beethoven’ followed, in 2012 ‘In Search of Haydn’, and in 2014 we welcomed his last documentary about a master composer: ‘In Search of Chopin’. The latter is also one to be framed, often figuratively, because of the almost unbearably beautiful pieces of music and passionate stories of pianists; but sometimes also (almost) literally, because of the somewhat dusty, distant character of the narration and the various sequences of still lifes that pass by. Fortunately, Chopin’s interesting life and especially his beautiful music dominate.

When you think of Chopin, you think of his quiet sounds and his melancholic pieces; especially late night. It is impossible to listen to this unfazed. While they appear to be ‘simple’, with few notes and a calm tempo. But there is nothing simple about the work – and the piano playing – of Chopin, who grew up in the culturally vibrant Warsaw of the early 19th century. Because Warsaw was not a simple, clunky insignificant town in those days, where no culture penetrated. As a young boy Chopin came into contact with operas and the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Haydn and many others here. So plenty of inspiration. In any case, he did not get any inspiration from his parents because they were not particularly talented musically.

Yet at the age of seven Chopin already composed his first piece with a finesse, emotion and insight as if his talent had been given by God. This is how his incredible skill is explained by some of the pianists who speak. Several fascinating analyzes and observations come along. For example, that he played the piano in a completely new way, as fluent and elongated as if it were a violin. This undoubtedly had a lot to do with his piano teacher, who was actually a violinist. Furthermore, in his Concertos and other pieces it is noticeable that he writes his piano pieces like an opera, in the sense that he gives his music room to breathe, as if the phrases should actually be sung.

The passion and often very pronounced qualities of his work – which should certainly not be interpreted as ‘soft’ or ‘light’ – are also clearly visible, as is the usually very intimate, Polish character of his pieces. When this subject is discussed, which is explained with great emotion and musical accompaniment by inspired pianists such as Ronald Brautigam and Janusz Olejniczak, the documentary takes off, and the viewer hangs on the lips of these speakers. Talking heads problematic? The opposite is the case here. Yes, it helps that they explain themselves by playing passages on the piano, but most of the time their obvious passion for and connection to Chopin’s music is more than enough to enchant the viewer.

With statements like ‘Sometimes I have to consciously take a distance, otherwise I get too absorbed in the music’ and ‘It feels so personal that it’s as if I wrote it myself’ you as a viewer can’t wait to put on some Chopin yourself. (or look it up) to be able to lose yourself in the music just as much. What a wonderful feeling that must be.

In addition to the colorful and emotional tales of pianists, there are of course also anecdotes about Chopin’s personal life and his history is neatly treated chronologically until he dies at the age of 39 in Paris and his heart takes his heart back to Paris. Warsaw is taken and given a special place in the church. Chopin struggled with illness all his life and eventually died of tuberculosis. Furthermore, it is interesting that he did not like performing (in large halls); in his life he gave only 30 concerts and that he always felt strongly connected to his Polish motherland.

The most interesting twist in his life is his relationship with France’s most famous—and notorious—woman at the time: George Sand, a widely publicized author who dressed like a man and apparently had quite a few men. Until her eye fell on the shy and not particularly handsome or striking Chopin. An odd match, but it worked.

It is a pity that much of this – and many other and much less interesting – information is communicated through the reading of Chopin’s letters (to his teacher, wife, relatives…). For a while it is possible to keep the focus on these parts, but there are limits. Especially because these passages are accompanied by a kind of still life: shots of buildings, houses, furniture (from the time of Chopin), trees, streams… you name it. And now and then a painting for variation. It is – irreverently said – to fall asleep to. Yes, you can also hear Chopin’s music in the background at the same time, but it doesn’t help much. In fact, it also makes the music duller and stripped of meaning or context. As a viewer, you can’t focus on the power of the music right now, nor do you know the story behind a certain piece. You just have to assume that the music you hear was written in the period being discussed and then try to discover some connection (or an emotion from his life), but it remains a guess.

In addition, not all passages are equally interesting and could easily have been cut away for fifteen minutes, without the film losing its power or we would know or understand less (essentially) about Chopin, the man. Fortunately, these are only minor remarks and the power of Chopin’s music remains unabated. Moreover, the new insights are very valuable and immediately make them enthusiastic to listen to the (master) works of this old master again and again in new ways.

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