Rereleased as part of special screenings for all of director Phil Grabsky’s Great Composer series, this 2014 documentary is a studious, attentive resumé of the genius Polish émigré one European aristocrat liked to call “Chopski”. What it lacks in the kind of central episodic hook much favoured by the modern biopic, or visual virtuosity, it doubly pays backs in informed piano-side commentary by top pianists – including Daniel Barenboim, Leif Ove Andsnes and Ronald Brautigam – that gets to the essence of the music.
Chopin himself, a teenage prodigy in his native Warsaw, was chary about simply giving this away. He gave only 30 public concerts in his short life (he died of tuberculosis aged 39 in 1849); his preferred method of musical communion was more intimate salon recitals that suited the existential keyboard pieces to which he dedicated himself once he arrived in Paris in the early 1830s. As Grabsky traces the pianist’s progress across Europe, Juliet Stevenson provides an appropriately dulcet narration, while David Dawson reads the composer’s surprisingly chipper correspondence.
The biopic moment would have been Chopin’s “odd couple” liaison with George Sand, the cross-dressing literary powerhouse who was the most famous woman in France. Grabsky gives the affair a decent eyeballing, but his real emotion is reserved for the composer’s musical dynamics, on which the film is excellent. We learn early on that his groundbreaking fluidity and expressiveness on the piano was thanks to early input from Wojciech Żywny, a violin specialist. More than once, modern interpreters say they feel uncomfortable playing him because the notes are so soul-baring, it feels intrusive.
In Search of Chopin seems less concerned with making a case for his broader influence and legacy than simply defining this quintessence. The pianist and actor Hershey Felder, who has played Chopin on stage and makes a number of colourful appearances here, nails it with a shrug: “Perhaps the only answer is that such a thing comes from God.”
• In Search of Chopin is released in the UK on 1 March.