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A Film by Angelo Bozzolini
TV Format 16:9 NTSC
Sound PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, French
Region Code 0 (worldwide).
EUROARTS DVD 2058848 [57:00]

This is part of a series of composer biographies on DVD released by Euroarts. Angelo Bozzolini has been responsible for two previous issues: Mendelssohn and Liszt. I have to admit I always rather wince when some people - in Bozzolini’s case he also took care of the screenplay and interview text – start carrying on as if they were film directors by emblazoning ‘A Film by ...' on the box cover.

The biography makes a straightforward story over-complicated. It depends largely on letters, using them as an autobiographical device to chart the narrative of Chopin’s life. The means by which they’re declaimed is via the famous daguerreotype of Chopin, which is made to move and talk, cartoon style, to give us Chopin-as-narrator, as it were. The same happens when George Sand hoves into view and her picture starts talking too, though separately – and not very well, as it happens. Watching this bizarre medium is, after a while, almost enjoyable, though not necessarily for the right reasons.

This is an Italian documentary so the primary language is Italian, but confusingly all manner of contemporary musicians, interviewed for the project, speak a Babel-full of languages, some unexpectedly so. Barenboim chips in in Italian, Charles Rosen and Ashkenazy speak English, Poles speak French, and so on. This has the unsettling effect of adding to the confusion given the probable necessity for the subtitles. There are interviews with Martha Argerich, and a detour (to no great biographical purpose, alas) to meet Alfred Cortot’s son, Jean; academics – mainly Polish, some speaking Polish, some French, and some English - advance the musicological case. Bobby McFerrin turns up to whistle the one piece of Chopin he knows, and it’s fortunate he doesn’t know more.

You will have to forget a linear narrative, and will have to follow the chapter headings to get some idea of the digressive nature of this immensely frustrating piece of work: Ahead of time, The Beginnings, Conducting Chopin, National Idol, Rubato and so on. You can tell even from this sample that the conflation of biography and interpretation leads to many a trek across interpretative country, and one needs to be forcefully helicoptered back to one’s path every so often.

Yes, it’s good to see a folk band, and it’s interesting to have a detour to the Chopin Competition of 1955 – but it is still a detour. Some of the academics interviewed talk a lot of thoughtful sense. I suppose it’s valuable to hear a lot about Mazurkas, and their special character and rhythm but surely not to the extent of bloating this segment to the detriment of the narrative as a whole. It’s like going to a museum to stare enraptured at its windows.

Did I learn much? Did I laugh? Did I cry? No. yes, no, in that order. I laughed when Barenboim said of a time when he was conducting in Italy; ‘thank God we were in a country that understands rubato – not like Germany or England.’ Nothing like sucking up to your interlocutor.

If you can cope with cartoon daguerreotypes, and with up-hill-and-possibly-down-dale sequenced narratives you may enjoy some of the more rewarding moments here: there are a few.

Jonathan Woolf



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