Filmmaker Filters A Life Devoted To Classical Spirits

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Filmmaker Christopher Nupen has spent his career specializing in documentary films about classical musicians he adored.  (This close-up of him at work is featured on the jacket of a new book focusing on his time ‘Listening Through the Lens.’)

Listening Through the Lens by Christopher Nupen. Foreword by Vladimir Ashkenazy. London: Kahn & Averill, 2019. 222 pages and a DVD.

BOOK REVIEW – One of these days someone will write a book about the breakthrough technology that made the filming of a classical music concert technically feasible as well as artistically meaningful and satisfying. While such a book could have been written by one of the pioneers in this field, Christopher Nupen, this book is not it. It is otherwise frequently insightful and illuminating. But it is more about Nupen the man and his life, and about the artists being filmed, than about the filmmaking itself.

Nupen was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and at the urging of his lawyer father he studied law. He then went to work for a merchant bank which immediately sent him to London for four years of training. Being a music-lover, he went to every event in London he could afford to attend.

Nupen discovered his talent for the medium while at BBC.

Having the opportunity to attend the reopening of the Vienna State Opera in 1955, he went there too. As luck would have it, he found himself seated in the same box as the legendary and now retired soprano Lotte Lehmann. This was the turning point in Nupen’s life. Goodbye merchant banking and hello a life in music. But not being a musician, what could he do to make a career? Lehmann advised him to go to the BBC. Fortunately, he had a family friend with good connections there; he was hired and on his way to a whole new career making documentaries about classical musicians.

Did I mention that the 19-year Nupen had an affair with 69-year old Lotte Lehmann? Nupen is not shy about providing details, and it soon becomes apparent that a very active libido has been an important part of his life.

Nupen started in radio at the BBC but soon found himself transferred to the television section. It was there that he discovered that he had a talent for making documentaries about classical musicians. He began to study guitar, and through serendipity he studied with John Williams’ father; he ended up living in the Williams household.

Through the Williams family Nupen met Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pré, and Vladimir Ashkenazy. He became close friends with all of them and eventually featured them in BBC programs. One of his first big successes was this feature built around a performance of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos with Barenboim and Ashkenazy in 1966. Three years later he filmed Schubert’s Trout Quintet with Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, du Pré, Barenboim, and Zubin Mehta on double bass. (View it below.) It has become a classic both as documentation of the performers involved and as a prime example of how film technology could capture the essence of music and music-making.

But if Nupen found himself in making music documentaries, he also found tragedy. He knew Jacqueline du Pré when she was at the height of her career and through her terrible struggle with multiple sclerosis. By this time Nupen was married to Diane Baikie, a young woman he had met at the BBC, and both Nupens were very close to du Pré. But just a few years before du Pré died, Nupen’s wife succumbed to lung cancer at 39.  Then Nupen was with du Pré when she died at age 42, and there was more tragedy to come: When Nupen decided to leave the BBC and start his own film company, his brother Michael joined him to help him run it. Michael was a philosopher by training and gifted in many ways, but he suffered from depression and ultimately took his own life.

Christopher Nupen has done as much as anyone to keep du Pré’s memory alive. He has made no fewer than seven films in which she is featured. Here is one of them:

And these films are typical of the man and his work. His secret is that for the most part he does films about his friends. It just so happens that many of his friends are exceptional artists. In every case the friendship comes first and then the film. Only after he has formed a bond with the person and comes to understand their art does he feel ready to make a film about them. Jacqueline du Pré may well have been the love of his life, and his profound appreciation of both the person and the musician comes through in all his films about her. When he first met her he was, in his own words, bewitched:

I found Jackie irresistibly appealing. It was the start of a friendship that was to last for 26 years and to bring into my life an extraordinary richness – including the opportunity to keep something of a great artist’s inexplicable magic alive on film.

Similarly, Nupen clearly loved Vladimir Ashkenazy and so is able to bring out the best in the great Russian pianist in the twelve films they made together. And on it went with Barenboim, Perlman, Milstein, Segovia, Zukerman, Kissin, and many others.

A typical Nupen film is a combination of documentary and performance. In interviews we get to know the person and then see them in performance, and usually in complete performances. For the most part the artists and their performances are allowed to speak for themselves, with Nupen’s unseen narrator providing introductions and connecting narrative only when absolutely necessary.

One of Nupen’s best films of his later years is Evgeny Kissin: The Gift of Music made in 1998 (below.) It’s the first of three films Nupen made of Kissin. More recently he has produced several films with Daniil Trifonov.

In the first Kissin film, we meet the 26-year old Russian firebrand, still very much under the wing of his teacher Anna Pavlovna Kantor, but already one of the greatest pianists of his generation. The film includes most of a now legendary solo recital given at the Proms in London. Nupen introduces us to his new friend with love and understanding and shows him at his very best in performance. In the case of Kissin, the person, this was a considerable feat. The unbelievably talented young man was notoriously introverted and shy at that time, and yet there he is, speaking in exceptionally nuanced English, and even making jokes. Nupen had obviously taken the time to get to know Kissin and earn his trust before making the film.

The book includes a DVD devoted to excerpts from some of Nupen’s films, but few of the excerpts last longer than a few seconds and the total time of the DVD is only thirteen minutes. The excerpts go by so fast, it is impossible to begin to appreciate Nupen’s artistry, let alone the artistry of the performers. For more information about the Nupen films and DVDs, go to www.allegrofilms.com.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.myscena.org.