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`Spring Symphony': cultural oasis among summer movie fare

``Spring Symphony'' takes its title from a work by composer Robert Schumann, who's the hero of the film. The heroine is pianist Clara Wieck, his future wife. And looming over both of them is Clara's father -- piano teacher and salesman Friedrich Wieck, whose biggest dread is that his daughter's brilliant (and profitable) performing career will be interrupted by something as humdrum as love and marriage.

People like this have been trotted out in countless films: the starving but brilliant artist, the faithful but headstrong lover, the old-fashioned daddy who can't separate his child's good from his own self-interest.

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What makes ``Spring Symphony'' a special experience is the gusto that director Peter Schamoni brings to the tale. The performances, camera work, and music score positively bubble with the heady German romanticism that Schumann and his epoch were steeped in.

Any music lover knows how the story will come out: Clara Wieck is far better known as Clara Schumann, after all. Yet it's a pleasure to watch such a rip-roaring account of such gifted youngsters having such a heartfelt and photogenic romance.

``Spring Symphony'' announces its wildly, classically Germanic mood immediately. Before five minutes have passed, we've already whisked through a Paganini recital, a fencing match complete with ``dueling scar,'' and a tavern scene full of students crooning about their ``fatherland'' while clutching beer steins.

Against this background we meet young Schumann, who sneers at ``honorable'' customs of the day (dueling is merely ``a test of terror,'' he sensitively opines) and vows to pursue his art at all costs. Moving in with his piano teacher, none other than Herr Wieck, he befriends little Clara without dreaming they will someday be lovers.

His devotion to music almost gets sidetracked by marriage to another young woman, until she turns out to be possibly illegitimate and definitely without a dowry -- two considerations that put her out of Schumann's life (and out of the movie) in no time flat.

But his affections are hooked for good when little Miss Wieck grows old enough to be played by Nastassja Kinski, who shows up about 45 minutes into the story. From then on, it's romantic Robert and clinging Clara against fussy old Friedrich, with everybody's future hanging in the balance. The ending resolves the suspense but lets us know that marriage won't be simple for two such strong-willed and strong-minded individuals.

``Spring Symphony'' isn't exactly subtle, especially when it plunges into odd details of 19th-century life -- following Robert, for example, through a series of crackpot remedies for an ailment that affects his hand.

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But the film's energy is unquenchable, and director Schamoni shares credit for this with a solid cast. As the heroine, Kinski combines strength and sweetness, giving both qualities a touch of iron.

As the hero, Herbert Gr"onemeyer has the panache to pull off the most dizzily emotional scenes of the year, as when Robert shoves a newly completed score under Clara's nose and burbles, ``It's the most ardent piece I've yet written!''

A special nod also goes to Rolf Hoppe, who gives the hard-to-love Friedrich an admirable sincerity and complexity. The music score, meanwhile, is performed by violinist Gidon Kremer (portraying Paganini in a brief onscreen appearance) and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, among many others.

``Spring Symphony'' is one of the best -- and, yes, most ardent -- movies yet made on a musical subject. It's also a cultural oasis in the shallow-as-ever summer film season. Where else would Felix Mendelssohn wander into a scene, mosey over to the piano, and knock off a ``Boat Song'' in the background?

The movie's rating is PG-13, reflecting a little nudity and perhaps the passionate overtones of the Schumann-Wieck romance.

David Sterritt is film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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