Claudio Arrau: The Emperor - A film by Peter Rosen
Includes a complete performance of the Piano Concerto No.5 ‘The Emperor’ by Beethoven with Claudio Arrau, The Symphony Orchestra of the University of Chile, conducted by Victor Tevah
Picture format NTSC 4:3. Sound PCM Stereo. Languages E, D, F, ESP. Region 0 (worldwide)
EUROARTS DVD 2058648 [85:00]

Arrau is a popular subject of DVDs. In fact this is the third such package I’ve received for review in the last couple of months. In visual terms this may seem odd, as he wasn’t at all an explosive or extravagant pianist, and in his later years sat squarely and undemonstratively on the piano stool, gestures at a minimum, only the unexpected expressive look allowing one an insight into the depth of his imaginative associations. But Arrau embodied the kind of lineage, and executant excellence, that lent distinction to everything he played. His longevity too lent him authority. And in this film, made in 1987, he is charted, at the age of 81 in 1984, returning to Chile, the country of his birth, for a triumphal visit.

Peter Rosen’s film is written and ‘hosted’ by Martin Bookspan. British listeners must first get used to the apparently widespread American practice of pronouncing the country’s name ‘Chill-eh’ rather than ‘Chilly’. One must then adjust oneself to Bookspan’s sense of historical snow blindness. He tells us, during a biographical overview, that ‘in 1940, with Europe on the brink of war’ Arrau left for America. This might surprise Europeans, who had already understood themselves to be at war.

There are necessarily lots of shots of adoring, often very young and very old crowds. The older ones are Arrau’s contemporaries, the young ones looking to follow in his footsteps. We also see his elegant sister, from whom we hear something of her childhood. There is rehearsal footage of the Emperor Concerto. Much is made of the fact that Arrau was apparently known as ‘The Emperor’. Was he? I’d never known him as ‘The Emperor’: I’ve always known him as Claudio Arrau. This misplaced sense of grandeur and piety shadows the portrait, which is rather superficial. Bookspan asks a few, expected, often gauche questions. Arrau answers patiently, explaining that one must fight against routine and if necessary drop a work entirely if one feels oneself succumbing, until freshness returns. One must also fight against feeling oneself ‘the best’. Arrau was well placed, given his extensive psychoanalytic treatment in Berlin, to appreciate the vanities of the self, and to counsel against them, and their siren lures. It is ‘the most blocking thing’. One can certainly learn much from his humility, and his refusal to endorse exclusivity and pecking orders of greatness.

We eavesdrop briefly on Arrau and his protégé William Melton, as the latter plays. We also see around Arrau’s sitting room, with its books and statuary.

The Concerto is given with the Symphony Orchestra of the University of Chile, conducted by Victor Tevah. Camera angles are fine, and sensible, and the sound is decent, despite the rather cavernous acoustic, though Arrau is over-recorded in relation to the orchestra, close miking doing for many an orchestral counter-theme. There were apparently 5,000 people in the cathedral watching, and another 6,000 outside. The highlight of the concert, for me, was to see Arrau’s gripping facial responses when most moved, only briefly glimpsed. One thing mostly glossed is the unavoidable figure of Pinochet, who attended one of Arrau’s concerts and can be seen in a box.

I have little doubt that Arrau’s return to Chile, not unlike Horowitz’s filmed return to Russia, will be of interest to admirers. The concert footage however will rate higher, imperfect though it is.

Jonathan Woolf

Arrau’s return to Chile will be of particular interest to admirers.