Billed variously as a music event, a film premiere, and, from Tuesday, a television series, Phil Grabsky's feature-length documentary In Search of Mozart launched the Barbican's extended Mostly Mozart season this week. In the very best way, Grabsky's film is defiantly old-fashioned: no dramatised reconstructions, no psychobabble voiced by people in periwigs and corsets, no slops thrown out on cobbled streets for period effect, no scandal or sensationalism, just two hours of talking, singing, and playing heads.
For those who have been dreading an anniversary year of facile beauty enlivened by the few demonstrably great - which is to say effortful - works that even skeptics admire, the seriousness of Grabsky's documentary gives pause for thought. Though Grabsky's interviewees are keen to refute Milos Forman's portrayal of Mozart as a giggling, coprophiliac loon in terror of his authoritarian father, and repeatedly stress that he was a working musician who never wrote a single note just because he felt like it, the harmonic twists and melodic ambiguities highlighted by fortepianist Ronald Brautigam and pianists Imogen Cooper and Lada Valesova indicate that even the simplest of his compositions had a questioning quality. The tension that drives Idomeneo, the Jupiter Symphony, the C minor Mass, and the Dissonance Quartet can be found in the slow movement of his Sonata in B flat. To put it succinctly, their testimonies make it harder to take Mozart for granted.
Tracing a life lived, as musicologist Cliff Eisen puts it, at fast-forward necessitates rapid edits. But such is the quality of the commentary from Eisen, Nicholas Till, Sir Roger Norrington and others that one doesn't feel cheated. Of the musical performances captured by Grabsky, most are very good. Some - particularly those by Brautigam, Frans Bruggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century - are astonishing. The clips of the ham-and-cardboard Prague production of Don Giovanni, on the other hand, made me grateful to be living in a country where a more interrogative, experimental approach to Mozart's operas is the norm.
'In Search of Mozart', Five, from Tuesday, 7.15pm; Mostly Mozart: Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7537), 6 June to 5 JulyReuse content