One lesson to be drawn from ''The Winners,'' a searching, melancholy Dutch documentary about the lives of four classical musicians who won the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, is that victory is not a guaranteed ticket into the classical music pantheon. Politics, personal health, changing musical fashions and the mysterious vagaries of personality, not to mention sheer luck, can be as strong determining factors as raw talent in the trajectory of a career.
The movie's most compelling and saddest case history is the downward spiral of Philipp Hirschhorn, a gifted Russian musician who upon winning the 1967 violin competition was hailed by many as a new Paganini. Vintage film clips show the dashingly handsome Hirschhorn (who died in 1996, shortly after his interviews were filmed) in his youthful glory, when he embodied the classical virtuoso as a fiery Byronic hero.
Interviewed nearly three decades later and shown old film clips of himself, Hirschhorn is bitterly scornful of his youthful naivete, yet retains a spark of his old fervor as he recalls the ''euphoria'' of performing and compares that feeling to driving a racing car at high speed and taking LSD. After he emigrated to the West in 1973, his career never took off, and it was undermined by an unspecified illness. The film, directed by Paul Cohen, contrasts Hirschhorn's burnout with the more gradual ascent of Gidon Kremer, who came in third in 1967 but eventually became an international star.
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