The premiere of a stand-out production in Berlin: "Schumann at Pier2," a television and DVD co-production by DW, Unitel Classica, Radio Bremen and ARTE, shows Robert Schumann's symphonies in a new light.
A violinist plays a motif against a white background - the complex, tricky principal theme of the fourth movement of Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 2. An orchestra sounds, and the film crossfades to a concert in an elegantly restored dockyard, the Pier2 in Bremen, where the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is playing.
The film's seamless transitions from solos into orchestral sound are presented with the help of various instrumentalists, each of whom narrate something along the way. The timpanist plays his part once in as mild-mannered a way as possible, then he repeats it, but with wicked joy and demonic power. The audience erupts in laughter.
A premiere of the 98-minute music film "Schumann at Pier2" in Berlin's sold-out Kino International movie theater on October 26 brought much laughter. One protagonist is Estonian-American conductor Paavo Järvi, who leads the audience through Robert Schumann's four symphonies in a communicative, charming and charismatic way. But music is the real star of this production by DW director Christian Berger. Other filmmakers could learn a thing or two from "Schumann at Pier2." The editing parallels Schumann's melodies, motifs and - in particular - his rhythms, resulting in a documentary perfectly in sync with the music.
Something for everyone
The film is a hit. As regards the target audience, Paavo Järvi had the following to say in an interview with DW.
"That was the key question in planning the film. It makes sense to do a film for people who already love Schumann - for people who are open to the topic. But on the other hand, there are perhaps people who are looking for something. The third aspect has to do with education. We could let this film be shown in classrooms, not just for music students but as a way of showing how music functions, period. It combines various elements and takes up the question: What did the composer want? How does this work as a whole? People don't normally know much about that process," the conductor said.
This production can instruct, inform and entertain, as well, while bridging gaps between younger and older audiences, between the devotees and those who barely know who Robert Schumann was. It shows the composer at the height of musical Romanticism, as a puzzling artist full of contradictions. Although Schumann, who was also a pianist, poet and music journalist, belongs to the mainstream of classical music, he was long seen largely as a second-rate master, falling somewhere behind the likes of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler and Schubert.
His Lieder and his piano and chamber music were widely appreciated, but it was his symphonies that earned criticism for their "gray-on-gray" orchestration. His mental illness - the composer died at the age of 42 in an insane asylum - often led to the judgment that his condition negatively affected his work.
But Paavo Järvi is shaking up Schumann cliches as well as the traditions of performing his music by drawing out the musical contrasts and inciting the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen to perform them with an infectious directness. The musicians don't need much of a push, Järvi says.
"This orchestra has an energy that I would almost describe as dangerous," the conductor said. "It has an incredible collective intelligence. These musicians can be like wild horses, so that it's literally impossible to put the reins on them or stop their energy. I love this quality because it brings out something that lets us get closer to Schumann and can arouse unfiltered excitement."
"Schumann at Pier2" was filmed in HD quality and won the Czech Television Prize at the International Television Festival Golden Prague 2012. It's the latest in a series of ambitious Deutsche Welle music projects, including the documentary's immediate predecessor, "The Beethoven Project." That production, featuring the same orchestra, conductor and film director, received multiple international distinctions.