You begin really to understand Ludwig van Beethoven's existential problem, perhaps, when you see Peter Ustinov trying out the great composer's ear trumpets -- first a small one, then a giant that looks something like an enormous soup ladle. Or when you catch a glimpse of one of the "conversation books" -- the numerous notebooks that were Beethoven's primary means of communicating with the world in his final years when he was totally deaf.
On "The Immortal Beethoven," which airs tonight on PBS (9 p.m., Channel 26), Ustinov is urbane, dramatic, articulate -- the almost ideal host. He tells his numerous anecdotes with style, changing his voice as the dialogue shifts from one person to another, and his expressive face leaves you in no doubt at all as to how he feels about the story. Beethoven's life was sad but triumphant. The sadness and the triumph are conveyed in Ustinov's body language as well as in the chatty, superlative-rich script by pianist Israela Margalit, who also spends a bit of time on camera playing some of Beethoven's music.
Approximately half of the two-hour show is devoted to Beethoven's music, with performers who include Leonard Bernstein, Claudio Abbado, Neville Marriner, Henryk Szeryng and quite a few less famous but musically reliable European players. Those who insist on hearing a work from beginning to end, or at least on hearing the second movement of the Ninth Symphony played before the fourth, should be prepared for disappointments, but this is not a concert, it is a documentary.
For those who have spent a modicum of time studying the life and work of Beethoven, "Beethoven the Immortal" will contain no revelations at all, but it touches the highlights effectively and it reflects accurately enough the current state of knowledge and opinion about this artist. It also shows Beethoven's birthplace, some of the people he knew and paintings of a few of the major (i.e. Napoleonic) historic events of his time. This visual information, together with the samples of Beethoven's music that shift constantly between background and foreground, may be the most significant contributions of the show. One ends it with a fair idea of what Beethoven's world was like and what kind of music he wrote.