The Christopher Nupen Films – Jean Sibelius (DVD)

0 of 5 stars

Sibelius – two films about the composer written and directed by Christopher Nupen: “The Early Years” & “Maturity & Silence”

Elisabeth Söderström (soprano)
Boris Belkin (violin)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)

Films produced in 1984

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: November 2006
Duration: 2 hours 31 minutes [including bonus features]

These two 50-minute films about Sibelius were produced by Allegro Films over 20 years ago and originally broadcast on television. They have now been packaged as the launch for a new series of DVDs labelled, unsurprisingly, “The Christopher Nupen Films”. The presentation is handsome and the image has been upgraded to the digital age. So far so good.

The problem lies in the age of the material. As Nupen announced when introducing his new series of DVDs, his decision to begin with the Sibelius films was partly due to the large amount of fresh information available on the Finnish composer and the inevitable new level of interest in his music. A film, two decades and more old is going, under these circumstances, to be somewhat out of date and so it proves to be.

However for the average music-lover there is much to enjoy and relish in Nupen’s films. He uses plenty of diary entries, which explain Sibelius’s precarious state of mind at various times of his life; he probes to an extent into the resulting emotional strain on his marriage and, of course, he illuminates the music through the composer’s own commentaries. The music is played very well under Vladimir Ashkenazy and sung beautifully by Elisabeth Söderström. It is wisely selected too with emphasis on some of the rarer Sibelius we never quite get to hear regularly enough – such as the enormously important Fourth Symphony, a peak not only in Sibelius’s output but also one of the most influential of all 20th-century works.

Nupen’s own narration is level-headed and sensible. Only with the images of a snow-bound Finland do I take exception with Nupen. Perhaps this aspect of Sibelius’s apparent artistic personality was still accepted at the time that these films were made. Nowadays we are conscious of other sides to his creativity besides the literal depiction of his countryside. Too may dull and lazy critics used to fall back on the old cliché of snow and ice when describing the symphonies. But the images are beautifully captured and to many viewers the natural landscape of Sibelius’s country remains a source of comfort when hearing his music.

There are very few films on Sibelius. These are thoughtful and worthwhile and they appeal to all levels of admirers of the composer and are richly enjoyable.

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