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No matter how much one feels one knows these four composers, each of these four films by Phil Grabsky expands one’s appreciation and knowledge appreciably. They are all impeccably crafted, balancing narrative of the composers’ loves with comment by a raft of acknowledged experts, be they renowned performers or academics. Music is copiously present and always relevant. The lives are handled chronologically, with local colour of the cities or town in which they were resident always bringing the story to life. There are some constants in the experts consulted: Ronald Brautigam and Frans Brüggen, for example. The films each last around two hours. A rather nice touch is that for all four composers, Grabsky has performers illustrate on both period instruments (Erard in Chopin, for example) with period performance practice, and with modern pianos. A sequence of extras on each DVD serve to illuminate the film. Grabsky has always been interested by the myth that surrounds these figures. Significantly, he has also worked on films about Mohammed Ali and Alexander the Great. His search for truth digs deep to ask: who really were these people?

For In Search of Haydn, Phil Grabsky himself features in the ‘extra’ offering. He describes how much detail he researched in the preparation for these films, including a lot of live performance; he also talks of the sense of responsibility that rests on him. Grabsky’s intent is clear: he talks about the films as having to be ‘works of art’ in themselves, keeping this in mind through the difficulties of the commissioning and fundraising processes. These films are astonishing feats: ‘Sometimes it would be nice to have an assistant,’ Grabsky says.

Nine excerpts form the extras to the Haydn film, from ‘Aria di merlina’ sung by Wilke te Brummelstroete to Piano Sonata movements played by Ronald Brautigam and Marc-André Hamelin, both of whom feature in the film proper; plus symphony movements played by Brüggen and his orchestra. Critic Richard Wigmore’s contributions are always full of enthusiasm; fascinating, too, to hear the present-day director of the Eisenstadt Festival, Walther Reicher.

The variety of locations, both in the Haydn film and in the others, is remarkable, standing testament to Grabsky’s dedication. That we get to hear such a diversity of Haydn’s output, from cello concertos to opera arias to symphonies to piano sonatas, is entirely apposite (Grabsky’s enthusiasm for Haydn operas, one hopes, might stimulate some to explore this neglected side of his output: 16 operas, here given their own segment in the documentary). Emanuel Ax on Haydn’s humour (based on the element of surprise) is most perceptive. The piano concerto excerpt (No 4 in G) is by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques.

Haydn’s life is relatively sedate in comparison with the other three composers. Renée Fleming, Magdalena Kožená, Pierre-Laurent, Aimard and Leif Ove Andsnes all contribute to the Mozart film, which chronicles the composer’s travels beautifully. Shots of the Autobahn against the K25 Variations work beautifully: we are looking back from today to this very different world. Grabsky’s camerawork can be most striking: the closeness of the full face in the aria from La finta semplice, for example. The use of early Mozart opera is also telling: one feels Grabsky wants to direct our attention to these examples as much as he does to Haydn opera: his message, which is another form of his overall pursuit for truth, seems to be to jettison received wisdom and clichés. There is huge joy to be gleaned from the lesser-known pieces of all four composers.

The Beethoven film stretches over two DVDs and here, the likes of Gianandrea Noseda, Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Chailly join the roster of contributors. The second DVD holds the extras, which includes a song from An die ferne Geliebte with Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber alongside Brautigam in movements from Sonatas (and Für Elise), and Brüggen in the Scherzo from the Ninth Symphony. The story expands at a leisurely pace that enables us to enjoy every stage in detail, with the massive breaks with tradition (beginning perhaps with the Piano Concerto No 3) given their full due. Sir Roger Norrington is featured on many occasions as commentator, but it is Noseda who speaks with most authority. One feels here is where Grabsky’s heart is most firmly.

The Chopin film, though, is arguably the most remarkable of the quartet. Over 115 minutes, Grabsky beautifully chronicles Chopin’s unique journey through a life packed with incident, in which Chopin found his own completely individual voice. There are some terrific performances here, not least Goerner with Brüggen and from lesser-known names that deserve greater currency: Kevin Kenner and Janusz Olejniczak. Grabsky captures the spirit of Paris perfectly, and how refreshing to hear the works for piano and orchestra played on period instruments. At the end, they play the Mozart Requiem, which Chopin requested for his own funeral. Extras include a notable complete performance by Brautigam of Chopin’s Ballade No 1 on a period piano.

All four films are well worth seeing. Pianists will of course gravitate towards the Chopin offering, and they will not be disappointed.

COLIN CLARKE Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing