A version of this review appeared in The Age, March 15, 2012.
We all know Mozart was a child prodigy, Beethoven went deaf, and Wagner influenced the Nazis – but ask a casual listener to cite a factoid about Joseph Haydn and you may well draw a blank. Serial populariser Phil Grabsky sets out to change this situation in his latest documentary, which begins with Haydn's birth in 1732 and moves in chronological sequence through a busy yet outwardly uneventful career spent mainly as court composer for the House of Esterhazy.
The biographical format could hardly be duller, but then In Search Of Haydn isn't intended as film art; it's more like an illustrated lecture, with Juliet Stevenson's narration accompanied by semi-relevant shots of the Esterhazy palaces or grass waving in the wind. Though assorted experts do their best to sound excited about Haydn, some seem to be fighting the sense that from a post-Romantic perspective his output, like his life, lacks a certain wow factor. The conductor Sir Roger Norrington enthuses over “this simple, honest, pleasant man writing this simple, honest, pleasant music” – which is delightful, but not an endorsement liable to create many new fans.
The boredom lifts occasionally, when we're allowed to listen to Haydn's works without distracting chatter, or when the sharper interviewees venture into the kind of quasi-technical analysis that genuinely aids appreciation. The American pianist Emanuel Ax offers an especially interesting riff on Haydn's trademark use of surprise – though he can't help mentioning Mozart did something similar in a subtler way.