Film Review: In Search of Chopin

Phil Grabsky filming In Search of Chopin

In Search of Chopin

Director Phil Grabsky

In cinemas from May 15

There have been several films about the life of Chopin including the 1945 film A Song To Remember with Cornel Widle and Merle Oberon and more recently Impromptu with Hugh Grant and Judy Davis which dealt with the composer's life, giving much emphasis to his romantic involvemnet with the writer George Sand.

A new documentary on him, In Search of Chopin foccusses on the musician and the nature of his music. The film, by writer and director Phil Grabsky follows on from two other similar films of his – In Search of Beethoven and In Search of Mozart. The film traces the life and evolving work of Chopin from his first public performance at the age of eight through his turbulent career in Warsaw, Prague, Paris and Edinburgh to his early death at the age of 39.

The story is told with a commentary along with images of the various cities he lived in along with interviews and comments by leading musicians. In addition there are excerpts from his letters which chart his journey as well as his comments on other musicians and composers and contemporary events showing him to be more than just a creative musician. He was also a shrewd businessman, an ardent lover and an determined recluse.

That he was both a composer and a talented pianist sets him apart from many of the great artists of the 19th century and the film manages to convey the conflicts and successes that came with that. Giving real depth to the film are the many interviews with great pianists such as Daniel Barenboim and other musical commentators and historians.

There are also a number excerpts from concerts of both his orchestral and solo works which provide an overview of his developing oeuvre. Pianist Lars Vogt at one point in the film plays two versions of one passage of the composer's work; one played in a 20th century style with drama and bravado and another played with what the pianist suggests is the way Chopin might have played with a softer approach, emphasising technique, tone and rhythm.

The commentators talk about the various influences on his work and we hear these expressed in his music, with excerpts which show his debt to opera, his use of folk and Jewish music as well as his building on the classical tradition. His great B Flat Minor Sonata is analysed, exploring the emotional maze of the work from its idyllic opening through its central dark themes to its conclusion which is like the wind passing over a grave. His music can be seen to mirror his personal life and interests – his attention to the detail of his surroundings, his furniture and appearance, his concern for aesthetics and his conflicting desires of wanting fame but reluctance to perform in public. He apparently only ever gave 30 public performances in his 20-year career. Most recitals were in private homes, embassies or palaces. He made his money from selling rights to his music and extensive teaching. The pianists talk about their awe of Chopin and the difficultly of playing his work and not just the technical issues but rather understanding the emotional aspects of the music. In Search of Chopin is a superb account of a driven artist, providing an understanding of the creative impulse and how it is captured and expressed.

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