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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
A Film in Two Parts: The Early Years [52:31]; Maturity and Silence [50:34]
Elisabeth Söderström (soprano); Boris Belkin (violin)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. 1984
Cameraman: David Findlay, Editor: Peter Heelas,
Writer and Director: Christopher Nupen.
NTSC; All regions
Includes bonus film Allegro molto
The Christopher Nupen Films


"You have lit a candle in the world of music that will never go out" – Ralph Vaughan Williams in praise of Jean Sibelius.

This DVD is divided into three sections: one on the Christopher Nupen films on classical music and two on the life and music of Sibelius.

‘The Early Years’, covers the composer’s progress through his early patriotic works and the glorious melodies of the first two symphonies, Finlandia and the Violin Concerto. It leads up to the more restrained and more ‘classical’ style of the Third Symphony, composed in the tranquillity of ‘Ainola’ (in English, Sibelius’s wife, Aino’s House). This was the Sibelius family’s country retreat some 45 minutes drive outside Helsinki after he had forsaken his more gregarious and hedonistic life in Helsinki. The other film, ‘Maturity and Silence’, charts Sibelius’s work through to the towering grandeur of the single-movement Seventh Symphony. This is notable for its concentration of material and its originality of structure and unity of form. Then from the same period there’s the great tone poem Tapiola in which Sibelius brings a different, original sound to the orchestra. The film then tracks through to the long years through which he struggled in vain to compose an Eighth Symphony - the pages eventually consigned to the flames in his green ‘F major’ stove at Ainola, by a composer who was so exceedingly self-critical that he was not prepared to allow anything that would not satisfy his stringent standards.

The visual elements of the films are striking. As to be expected, there are many views of Finland’s lakes and forests through the seasons: sun glinting on snow through tall phalanxes of trees; wisps of smoke-like cloud threading through and gliding across the tops of massed fir trees; mists creeping over dozens of islands and little islets on silvery lakes or embracing rugged mountain tops. There is archive film of Sibelius walking near Ainola and many portraits of the composer at different times of his life.

The essence of these films is Nupen’s telling selection of quotes from the composer’s and Aino’s letters and writings. These show the pains and triumphs of the progress of a creative genius. There are so many that stick in the memory, among them: Sibelius’s poignant tribute to Aino in the early days of their love; the terrible anxiety over his health when he feared death was looking over his shoulder in early middle age, the pain of a surfeit of ideas intruding upon his waking hours and into his sleep during the composition of the Violin Concerto; and, conversely, his feelings of frustration and agonising during periods when the muse eluded him.

Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in powerful, illuminating performances of well chosen excerpts from all the seven symphonies except No. 6 and Tapiola. The orchestra is joined by the talents of Boris Belkin as soloist in the Violin Concerto and by the expressive voice of the renowned Elisabeth Söderström in two songs including Sibelius’s orchestral song, ‘Since then I have questioned no further’ a work that mourns the transience of life and love.

The Christopher Nupen Films

British TV, over the past fifty years, has produced many significant documentaries on composers of classical music. Think, for instance of the BBC Monitor and Omnibus programmes, and Ken Russell’s acclaimed films on Delius and Elgar.

Christopher Nupen made a remarkable series of insightful and sympathetic films on classical music: many were transmitted by the BBC but others were broadcast by United Kingdom commercial television channels (Channel 4 and Granada Television). Part of this splendid DVD is a collection of clips from other Nupen productions; films that cover the lives and music of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Paganini, Mussorgsky and Respighi as well as Sibelius. One shows the joy of music-making by well-known artists in their salad days: Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline Du Pré. Another Nupen film is a poignant portrait of a wheel-chair bound Jacqueline Du Pré as mentor and teacher and charity worker after her tragic encounter with multiple sclerosis. One film covers the career of Andrès Segovia, more than any other man responsible for the revival of interest in the guitar as a ‘classical’ instrument. Another tells of the incredible child prodigy that was the pianist Evgeny Kissin and, conversely, another documentary features the extraordinary virtuosity of Nathan Milstein afire even at the age of 82!


At the peak of his career Sibelius enjoyed a reputation amongst music critics, and leading English composers, as the greatest symphonist of the 20th century. In America his music was more popular with concert-goers than any other composer living or dead. Today, nearly fifty years since his death the swings of fashion in music appreciation have changed as so often happens in the immediate period after the death of a composer. Sibelius’s reputation and popularity has languished so that this important and insightful documentary arrived most propitiously to rekindle interest in some of the most powerful, colourful and original music of the 20th century.

Ian Lace

See also review by Anne Ozorio [September RECORDING OF THE MONTH]



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