Classical Music on TV: Mozart - Man or god?

Great Composers, BBC2
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Mozart is the most popular of classical composers, though in his own day his music was considered too rich and complex. The 19th-century view, on the contrary, was that Mozart was simple. Now, perhaps, we've arrived at a more balanced impression, though, as Jonathan Miller warned, human history is not a matter of increasing vision or cleverness, only changing point of view.

All these thoughts emerged in the course of the second of BBC2's Sunday- evening Great Composers. Perhaps Mozart, a son of the Enlightenment, shortlived and glamorous, was easier to treat than JS Bach, who beavered away in provincial obscurity until he was 65. Even so, Francesca Kemp directed a more coherent, less jarring or bitty film than James Runcie had done for Bach the weekend before, and there were ideas to challenge musically knowledgeable viewers in the course of a basic musical biography.

I don't really agree with the period-conscious keyboard player Robert Levin that Mozart's famous A-minor Sonata had "no parallel in any other composer" (he meant among Mozart's contemporaries) for expressive range and musical boldness, but at least it was something to chew over. Similarly, HC Robbins Landon - a highly engaging and telegenic talker who might have replaced some of the duller pundits to the film's advantage - opined that Don Giovanni expressed terror for the first time in music.

Then Sir Colin Davis, who in the course of his travels seems to have picked up a guttural, faintly Germanic accent, put the case against improvising passage-work to fill the gaps in the solo part of the A major Piano Concerto, while Robert Levin showed how effectively it could work. Skeletal or fleshed out, the music remains eloquent.

On the personal front, Nicholas Till called Mozart - for all his scatological humour - a bit of a prude, terribly conscious of appearances and family values, though it beats me how anyone can be sure that he hadn't ever been in love before he met Aloysia Weber when he was an old man pushing 22. When his mother died, he wrote home about the Parisian success of one of his symphonies, which might shock more pious souls, but hardly proves he was heartless.

But, on the musical level, there was not the slightest murmur to suggest that Mozart was anything but perfect, and Sir Colin Davis said that his very perfection made life all the more difficult for Beethoven, who had nothing like Mozart's intellectual competence.

This is mere sentimental twaddle - the familiar Mozart idolatry. Beethoven, born a crucial 14 years later than Mozart, was self-consciously trying to do something new all the time, as Mozart was not (though that is not to say that Mozart never achieved anything new), and it was Beethoven, surely, who was the more decisive influence - and, in some senses, inhibitor - on posterity.

Musically, the examples - all specially recorded except for the operatic excerpts - ranged from a keyboard piece Mozart wrote at the age of five to his Clarinet Concerto, and covered every major category. We never heard much of anything - never a complete movement or aria - but I didn't feel the music was vandalised, because the balance between commentary and performance, and the limited amount of voice-over, were sensitively judged.

Kenneth Branagh read the linking narrative excellently, as if it were the neutral, unobtrusive voice inside your head.

`Great Composers: Beethoven': Sunday at 8pm on BBC2

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