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Saturday, June 28, 2008


You can pretty much tell from the title TCHAIKOVSKY: THE TRAGIC LIFE OF A MUSICAL GENIUS (2007) whether or not you're going to be interested in this. If you don't like classical music, you'll doubtless want to steer clear. Me, I love it, and found this BBC production to be fairly interesting, especially the concert segments.

Originally broadcast in 2007, it examines the life and music of 19th century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in two parts, each hosted by conductor Charles Hazlewood. First, "The Creation of Greatness" tells of the fragile boy genius troubled by all the music swirling incessantly through his mind. The loss of his mother at a young age is something from which he never recovers. Later, we see him as a tortured homosexual living in fear that public exposure of his scandalous secret will ruin his career, while at the same time he struggles to gain acceptance for his daring musical ideas in the face of stodgy skepticism.

Part two, "Fortune and Tragedy", tells of his disastrous marriage of convenience to young female admirer Antonina Milyukova, despite the warnings of his younger brother Modest and the knowing ridicule of his friends. We also learn of a mysterious benefactor, a wealthy widow named Nadezhda von Meck, who finances Tchaikovsky for years although their only communication is through the written word. Tchaikovsky's fame and the Russian people's reverence for him grow to stellar proportions, but shortly after the unsuccessful premiere of his magnificent Sixth Symphony, "The Pathetique", he dies of cholera at the age of 53.

While well-mounted and interesting, the dramatic reenactments of certain events in Tchaikovsky's life don't build much momentum as they are intercut with actual concert footage, interviews with concert musicians in whom the distinctively Russian spirit of Tchaikovsky still resides, and narrative interludes with Hazlewood. In fact, the emphasis here is on the music itself as much as the composer.

Watching his First Piano Concerto being performed by the Maryinsky Young Philharmonic with an amazing solo performance by Natasha Peremski is a particular thrill, and it's deftly integrated into the scene in which Tchaikovsky first auditions the piece before his scoffing mentor, Anton Rubinstein, who is shocked to hear such "vulgar" passion expressed in music. Interesting that something we take for granted for its familiarity was once considered, in Hazlewood's words, to be "radical, raw, and shocking."

"Romeo and Juliet", an erotically-charged work composed during an early love affair with a music academy student named Edward Zak, has become somewhat of a cliche these days after having been used for so many movies and spoofs as diverse as TARZAN THE APE MAN and A CHRISTMAS STORY, but its performance here is stirring. This is also true of excerpts from some of Tchaikovsky's ballets, such as SWAN LAKE and THE SLEEPING BEAUTY. Best of all, however, is the climactic performance of the tragic "Pathetique", which is one of the most moving works ever written.

If not for these dynamic musical passages, which the filmmakers obviously staged and photographed with great feeling, the production would be unremittingly dry and somber. The biographical scenes serve mainly to illustrate how the passion and turmoil of Tchaikovsky's personal life was the rich inspiration for his music, and more than anything, the dramatic segments are supportive of and serve as backdrops for the musical passages.

Included as a bonus is an episode of the BBC series "Omnibus" entitled "Who Killed Tchaikovsky?", which effectively challenges the cholera explanation for the composer's death with theories of suicide or even murder, and hints at a mysterious and potentially scandalous cover-up. Biographer Anthony Holden travels to New York and St. Petersburg to do some detective work, uncovering tantalizing bits of evidence amidst a general unwillingness of the Russian people to risk casting aspersions on their revered national composer. The mystery is left unsolved, but raises some intriguing and rather chilling implications.

TCHAIKOVSKY: THE TRAGIC LIFE OF A MUSICAL GENIUS is informative regarding the volatile emotions behind Tchaikovsky's work, and competently acted by THE PIANIST's Ed Stoppard and a good cast. But it's the concert segments that really make it worth watching.

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