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Allegro – a new era in music recording

Christopher Nupen talks to Anne Ozorio
about the release of a series of Allegro Films on DVD

“Christopher Nupen pioneered a style of filming music and music-making for television in which his excellence has rarely been equalled and never excelled …. His films will endure forever as reference documents to the executant’s art in the 20th century and as constant sources of musical delight” – Jeremy Isaacs (Chief Executive, Channel Four and later General Director, Royal Opera House)

Only a hundred years ago, there was no way musical performance could be preserved. The art of recording is really so new that we haven’t, perhaps, even begun to explore the possibilities. Recordings alone don’t capture the experience of live performance. Filmed music is in itself a new art form, which can expand a deeper appreciation of what is heard.
Allegro Films is launching a series of DVDs, to be distributed by Naxos. These will be reference recordings, for they preserve not only performance, but the spirit of the artists, and the context of the music.

Christopher Nupen pioneered the concept of filming music. His film The Trout, a performance of Schubert’s great Quintet was something of a revolution. It featured Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zuckerman, Itzhak Perlman and Zubin Mehta, playing in recital, but was filmed so sensitively that it captured the spirit of the artists as well as their performance. Despite originally receiving a bad review in the Times and being criticised by the BBC , both for its form and its title, it went on to become the most frequently broadcast classical music film ever made. .(see review) In 2005, Jacqueline du Pre in Portrait became the biggest selling classical DVD of the year. .
Film adds a powerful dimension to the music experience. As Nupen says, film has been around long enough that people are used to understanding its “grammar”. People are used to the way the medium works, and expect good editing, good lighting, good framing. Art films have shown that it is possible to convey a lot more through film than meets the eye at first. More can be expressed in good images than words alone can convey: “you cannot film music, but you can film musicians and they are riveting to watch ……. there is something in the great performers that is deeply inside them … that wants to communicate to the public what they feel. Some even believe that it is their duty on earth to create music, and that the more the public responds, the better they get at it”. Music, in other words, can’t be filmed, but the artist persona can, and this enhances the musical experience intensely. Just as a live recital is more than just listening, so is filmed music.
Indeed, it was a musician who first understood the importance of film. It was Jacqueline du Pré herself. Nupen recalls: “I filmed something and said to her, “It’s not nearly so good as when you played it on the stage, it can’t be”. But she said “Rubbish, you’re wrong, it’s better on the film”. I said, “What do you mean, better on the film, it’s nowhere near what you did on the stage”. She said, and I quote verbatim, “Because you can see what’s going on and it adds another dimension”. It took me years to realise what she was telling me. She was telling me, when film is well done and artists are giving their all, there is something radiating that is more than just music, it is the artistic intention of the artistic persona and you can see it! It’s the human element of music”.
Anyone who watches du Pré playing pizzicato cello on the train, singing a French folk song, can never forget the sheer joy of playing that she radiates. Her artistic persona is preserved for all time. Indeed, her enthusiasm for music must have inspired millions of people who never met her. It is a lasting legacy, beyond even her wonderful performances.
Nupen adds, “There is something spiritual in music that seems to link us to the eternal. That sounds like a highfalutin statement but that is what caused Kenneth Clark to say, “Once art touches the soul, it calls that soul back for the rest of its days”. People are used to the power of film. It’s possible that the market for classical music hasn’t even been tapped, and could be magnified many times over if film could be used to bring in audiences used to watching. Once people’s imaginations are challenged by good films, they go onto listening further and enjoying the experience, just as Kenneth Clark predicted. Television does reach these audiences. When Channel Four presented a sixteen week retrospective of Allegro’s work in 1993, it was their biggest success of the year, overall. Indeed, if anything, classical music may even mean more in modern society with its upheavals, because its spiritual aspects transcend the temporal. That’s why, says Nupen, so many people come to music at significant times of their lives, say, at 21, 41 or 61, when they are thinking that there may be more to life. In an increasingly technological and impersonal world, the humane language of music may be even more important than before. A philanthropist who would sponsor classical music and film would give society emotional and spiritual benefit, which would be long term and lasting.
The BBC was founded on the belief that audiences could be “educated, informed and entertained”. Whether or not television still performs this function is moot, but the power of film to achieve these aims remains. DVD is an even more effective medium than television in many ways because it’s as permanent as is currently possible. Unlike a television programme, it can be played over whenever you choose. “A really good film on an artistic subject can never be comprehended fully in its first viewing” says Nupen, so it pays to have something you can revisit. Moreover, the use of chapters enables you to return to specific passages, just like the bookmarks in a book. “DVD is encyclopaedic, comprehensive and inclusive”, says Nupen. We can turn to a DVD at any time, for however long as we need, and whenever we are ready, and so much more can be included in a DVD. Television doesn’t give the viewer such options. Moreover, it’s “always in a hurry”, to use Nupen’s own terms. Everything must be produced to format, and to deadlines which don’t allow for the intrinsic need of artistic innovation. Nupen and his team at Allegro, David Findlay and Peter Heelas have been working together for many years. They have created extremely high quality work. As Isaac Stern said “Christopher Nupen’s artistic conscience is extraordinary. He makes the camera an instrument, not just an observer. It is a lesson in how alive the camera can be in response to the inner quality of the music”.
Film is an art form, too, and Allegro films aim for the same high standards that the musicians they portray.
The first release in the new series will be the seminal film “Jean Sibelius – The Early Years - Maturity and Silence”. It’s not a biopic, but an exploration of the music itself, which is much more creative and subtle. It focuses on Sibelius’s music, and his own words. Says Nupen, “they are extremely telling words, extremely poetic words, extremely deeply felt words. This man cared more than anything else that he had to compose music, and that he wanted to reach people with that music …… It’s telling the story, but it’s the story of the work and what it has to tell us today.” It gives remarkable insight into Sibelius’s musical personality. When it is released in October 2006, it will be a major contribution not only to Sibelius studies but to the whole art of music appreciation.
The Sibelius film will be followed by another great Allegro classic, the film about Nathan Milstein. Milstein was one of the finest violinists of his century, acclaimed by Toscanini, Horowitz and many others. Yet, as Nupen recounts, “he never did one thing to publicise his work in his life because his mother told him, if he publicised his work, he’d taint his art. When Nathan died all the musicians in the world who knew him lamented him but there was no public recognition, and his music was lost. I was very lucky to get to know him, to develop a friendship with him. We used to have tea on Sunday afternoons. One day, after three years, I told him that I’d discovered that a very early German filmmaker had filmed Paganini in rehearsal in Frankfurt. For a few seconds, he was startled. And then he said “Why do you tell me such nonsense?” And I said, “Nathan Mironovitch, if there was film of Paganini you were probably be first in the queue to want to see it because you are like that, you are more curious than other people.” He’d once said to me “when you stop learning, that’s when the trouble starts!” So he said, “Okay, you win!” and made the film. Thus the film preserves Milstein’s art for eternity, while Paganini’s art is alas lost …. lost. At the age of 82, Milstein performs with intensity, knowing that this film will “educate, inform and entertain” many generations to come.

Before the age of recording, music was live, visual and personal. Film thus restores something of this natural state. Just as audio recording was an innovation in preserving performance, audio visual recording can usher in a new era. As performance is enhanced by bringing in the subliminal clues that image provides, it can develop and expand audiences for classical music. Being inspired by a performer in action, picking up on nuances of expression, as Jacqueline du Pré, prophetically intuited, “adds a new dimension” to the experience as a whole.
Anne Ozorio

Musicweb reviews of recent Nupen DVDs
The Trout    We Want The Light




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