Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Two great Nupen films

The art of the classical music documentary film is alive and well. I've given very positive reviews to recent films by Marco Capalbo and Eric Schulz. One of the best documentarians of them all, Christopher Nupen, is still going strong; his Daniil Trifonov films were released last year to great acclaim on DVD. 

It's nice to know a bit about how Nupen got where he is now. Luckily Allegro Films is releasing his full catalogue on DVD. In this recent release from Allegro's series The Christopher Nupen Films we have an early masterpiece, The Trout, and the 1994 Schubert documentary The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow.

The Trout is a very special hour of film that represents the happy accident of five young musical superstars-to-be coming together in London, with a young director who, as Pauline Kael said about Robert Altman, "had poetry in him." Nupen had an ace up his sleeve: new silent 16mm cameras that allowed a much more informal (indeed, Altmanesque) filming style. But it's the poetry that seals the deal, not the technology. Here's a short clip that gives a flavour of the film.

The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow isn't as innovative as The Trout. Indeed, it's a standard Ken Burns-style documentary, with voice-over and period paintings and drawings. Two things make it special. The first is the stature of the performances, which are astonishing. I was especially impressed with the fierce quality of Andreas Schmidt in the songs, and the piano artistry of Vladimir Ashkenazy, who provides sensitive accompaniment and an individual way with solo piano works. The second is something that's fairly rare in classical music documentaries, but which drives the whole film. Nupen has a thesis for his film, which he argues forcefully and effectively, against the idea that Schubert died before he reached his full destiny as a composer, and is thus not at the same level as the great masters. A certain level of advocacy is perhaps assumed in classical music documentaries; after all, why make a film at all if the subject hasn't some intrinsic worth. But Nupen's aim is to elevate Schubert to the level of Beethoven, which he emphasizes by beginning the film with Beethoven's funeral (where Schubert was a torch-bearer), and following with the music, letters and stories of the next 20 months that Schubert had to live. I was completely on board with this concept; I've always felt Schubert is, along with Beethoven, the greatest composer for the piano, and is all by himself as the greatest composer of art songs. So it works for me, and if, as they say, your mileage may vary, at least Nupen has provided a cogent argument.

Again, we have a short clip on YouTube to give you an idea of this film, which I highly recommend.

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