Beethoven, with Ustinov as guide

Immortal Beethoven with Peter Ustinov PBS, tomorrow, 9-11 p.m., check local listings. Narrated by Peter Ustinov. Peter Ustinov - handsomely white-haired these days - is telling viewers how Beethoven as a young man used to start performances by slamming his hand on the keyboard. Suddenly Ustinov himself smacks the keys to illustrate and lets out a laugh so earthy and irrepressible you feel it might have come from the composer himself - that lover of fun and nonsense.

It's one of many evocative touches on the part of narrator Ustinov which - along with musical excerpts - bring vibrancy and meaning to this literate survey of Beethoven's life and career. The documentary may play fast and loose with suggestions about where Beethoven's inspiration came from, but it nicely places the composer in his historical context. Through paintings, memorabilia, old instruments, and historic sites, the program traces Beethoven's life and offers a useful picture of how he operated in his society and when his familiar works were written.

But it's that narration - turned into a kind of mini-dramatization by the wonderfully capable Ustinov - that makes the show. His voice drips with scorn in describing Beethoven's overbearing father, breaks into fleetingly wry intonations to color sentences, waxes lyrical when reading about Beethoven's attitude toward nature - ``the only wisdom without deception.'' Through his actor's responsiveness to the tenor of the moment, Ustinov interprets and sometimes even illuminates what is basically a lecture. In telling of Beethoven's inconclusive love life - including a well-known ``letter to the immortal beloved'' - Ustinov's voice is a poignant reflection of how Beethoven may have felt. And it becomes a subtly tragic instrument in reading Beethoven's words about his deafness.

But the program is stronger as history than as musical analysis. The music offerings themselves are solid enough - though the show often cavalierly cuts them off. The problem lies in trying to find the message of a creator's art in his life - that old snare for the artistic biography. Dramatizations are the worst offenders, but the temptation to see ``obvious'' parallels between what Beethoven was doing and composing at a particular time can be irresistible even in a documentary like this. The show is forever linking events in his life with the ``meaning'' of pieces he wrote at the time: the famous Ninth Symphony Chorale with the custody of his nephew Karl, or anguished words about his deafness to the funeral march from the ``Eroica'' symphony.

The connections are there, all right, and they certainly help the show make the composer colorful and accessible, but in creative lives, such links tend to be only half valid. Making too much of them overlooks the mysterious basis of creativity and the real questions traditionally dealt with in the philosophy of art.

Actually, some of the smaller points the show makes are fascinating - like a reference to how an extended musical introduction allows you to savor the cello's sonorities, followed by an excerpt from Beethoven's Sonata in A major for cello and piano, opus 69. There's lots of his music to be heard and some fascinating facts, but if you haven't already read a good book about Beethoven, reserve judgment until you do.

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