This is the first in a series of reviews of DVDs showcasing the work of renowned classical music documentarist Christopher Nupen. The others are Franz Schubert - The Trout / The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow, Andres Segovia In Portrait and We Want The Light and Jean Sibelius - The Early Years / Maturity and Silence.Released on 2 August 2004, Jacqueline du Pré In Portrait was the first of a series of four DVDs released on the Opus Arte label that collectively showcased seven films by the renowned classical music documentarist Christopher Nupen. A passionate, almost evangelical fan of the DVD format, Nupen saw it as being the perfect medium to present an extensive filmography stretching back to the mid-1960s, and resolved to get as much of it transferred as was humanly (or financially) possible. Sensibly, he began with one of his best-known titles, and the DVD duly became a runaway success. The top-selling classical disc of its year, it also won two major awards, the Cannes Documentary DVD of the Year Award, and the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik (German Record Critics' Prize) - not bad going for a couple of nearly forty-year-old documentaries.These are Jacqueline du Pré and the Elgar Cello Concerto (1967) and The Ghost (1970), which along with The Trout (also available on DVD) comprise the three films about the legendary cellist that Nupen made when she was still performing. (There were two follow-ups: 1995's Remembering Jacqueline du Pré, and 2001's Who Was Jacqueline du Pré?, the last an attempted corrective to the sensationalised 1998 biopic Hilary and Jackie, with which Nupen pointedly had no involvement despite being responsible for, by his calculation, 95% of all the footage that had ever been shot of her). If one didn't know in advance that filmmaker and subject were close friends, it's clear from just a few minutes of footage, as demonstrated both by Nupen's loving treatment of du Pré as both person and musician, and her evident willingness to let him film her in situations that most image-conscious professional performers might consider undignified. Indeed, Nupen's films did initially receive some negative criticism on those very grounds.All this would have been obvious from their original broadcast - but what makes the original films so affecting today is their lack of hindsight. Nupen intended his 1967 du Pré film to be the first of many, chronicling what he confidently expected to be a long and brilliant career. Instead, she gave up performing in 1973 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis - the classical music equivalent of a James Dean or Jimi Hendrix. Unlike them, she would survive another fourteen years, but her public life was effectively over.
Jacqueline du Pré and the Elgar Cello Concerto
(1967, 72 mins)Nupen and du Pré first met in 1962, when she was still a teenage prodigy and he was abandoning the idea of performing in favour of filmmaking, though the latter course proved frustrating more often than not. He spent his first few years at the BBC wrestling with cumbersome cameras, lighting and recording equipment, which generally served to dilute (if not sap altogether) the kind of spontaneity he'd been trying to capture - and any sense of intimacy was out of the question.Although fellow BBC directors like Ken Russell had created small miracles on limited resources, those films invariably featured pre-recorded music, and were often shot silent (indeed, he'd been explicitly banned from using onscreen sound when making his groundbreaking Elgar
in 1962, lest audiences think that the film depicted the real composer). None of which was much use to Nupen. Although he admired Russell's work, his own preoccupations were quite different - instead of using music as a springboard for fantastical set-pieces, Nupen wanted to capture musicians as they were, both as people and performers.What came to his rescue was a new generation of lightweight and self-blimped (i.e. noiseless) 16mm cameras, and the speed with which Nupen snapped one up is demonstrated by its serial number: a mere 00000008. The first film that he shot with his new equipment was Double Concerto
(broadcast by the BBC on 4 April 1966), a performance by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim with the English Chamber Orchestra that also incorporated backstage material of the performers - a formula that Nupen would refine and perfect with The Trout five years later. The success of Double Concerto
persuaded the BBC to back a more ambitious hour-long study of a single musician, similarly based around a concert performance but also featuring a great deal of biographical material and the enthusiastic participation of its subject.
Du Pré was the obvious choice. Though only twenty-two, she had been a professional musician for several years and had already amassed a substantial reputation, not least thanks to a recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Released in August 1965, it had a cultural impact that recalled Glenn Gould's first recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations the previous decade - and it similarly set up an indelible connection between musician and music. Given its subsequent ubiquity, it seems hard to believe that the Elgar concerto was once relatively little known, but it only really embedded itself in the wider public consciousness in the 1960s, thanks to Russell's film and du Pré's performances. More superficially, she was young, female, attractive and blonde, all of which were grist to the BBC's publicity mill - one of the film's iconic shots is of her walking down a crowded street, cello case in hand, attracting more than a couple of admiring looks from passers-by. The original documentary opened with a chronological canter through her life, illustrated by family photographs, close-ups of her earliest exercises and similar material, accompanied by anecdotal and analytical contributions from du Pré herself, her parents, her teacher and 'cello-daddy' William Pleeth and conductor Barbirolli, as well as photographs of her performing with Casals, Rostropovich and Tortelier and enthusing about both her instruments (a Stradivarius and a Davidoff: she favoured the latter, originally made in 1712 and regarded as one of the world's three or four finest cellos) and her husband Daniel Barenboim. He’s happy to return the compliment, both verbally and musically - a lovely sequence shows the two of them performing Brahms at Abbey Road Studios.
The tone is affectionate but not slavishly hagiographic: her mother recalls a bout of depression as du Pré agonised over whether she was good enough to turn professional, and Barenboim recalls his occasional exasperation over her wayward phrasing, where emotional involvement occasionally trumped strict fidelity to his intended tempi.All this is interspersed with plenty of music, sourced from archive films and broadcasts: a duet with her teacher, 1962 television footage of her performing with her mother (though vastly more accomplished than that rather twee description implies), and glimpses of assorted concerts - though the most famous footage opened the original version of the documentary. Taken on a moving train, it features du Pré singing and plucking the Davidoff as though it was an oversized guitar, and is the example Nupen most frequently cites as the kind of thing that would have been impossible to film even a few years earlier.
The first half then gives way to a more formal second. This is entirely taken up with her performance of the Elgar concerto, with Barenboim conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra - after having been persuaded to memorise the score the night before after Nupen realised that a music stand would get in the way of his planned visual treatment. This alternates between shots of du Pré against the orchestra, du Pré and Barenboim facing each other (and occasionally stealing sidelong glances: the two had married only a few weeks earlier) and close-ups of du Pré herself, with only very occasional close-ups of other performers and no sign of the audience until the enraptured applause at the end.But this overwhelmingly du Pré-centred approach suits both the film and the music: unlike many concerti, the Elgar begins and ends with the cello in full flow. It’s a soloist’s piece par excellence, and while the musical performance doesn’t quite achieve the heights of her 1965 recording, this is amply compensated by the visual element. She completely loses herself in the score, especially when performing the main theme of the first movement (the most immediately familiar element) or the intricate dialogue between cello and orchestra in the fourth, her fiendish concentration occasionally breaking into a toothy grin. She'd been playing the Elgar for five years, but it's still clearly a labour of love.
The original documentary ran about an hour, but the DVD contains the expanded 1981 version, which opens with a ten-minute preamble (shot in colour) describing what had happened to du Pré since her diagnosis - much of it devoted to a sequence of her analysing the Elgar concerto for the benefit of younger cellist Murray Welsh. I suspect Nupen's decision to begin his film with this material is not dissimilar to Martin Scorsese's rationale for opening Raging Bull
with shots of the bloated, grossly overweight boxer Jake LaMotta - his rationale being that Robert De Niro's diet had received so much publicity that he wanted to prevent the film from becoming a suspense-driven morbid freakshow by revealing all as soon as possible. In fact, Nupen goes one better than this, adding a supplementary description of the Elgar concerto as being "a lamenting farewell to beauty" - a phrase taken from the critic Neville Cardus that serves a dual function: of describing the elegiac tone of the music itself (written shortly after the end of World War I) and of the inescapable poignancy of the film that it underpins.
(1970, 28 mins)Filmed on 12 May 1970 and broadcast the same year, the second film on this DVD preserves a complete performance of Beethoven's three-movement Piano Trio in D Major, op.70 no.1, popularly known as 'The Ghost'. A short text scroll quoting Beethoven's contemporary, the composer-violinist Louis Spohr, describes the disastrous first performance, which is thankfully not emulated by this enthralling interpretation by Daniel Barenboim (piano), Pinchas Zukerman (violin) and Jacqueline du Pré (cello).Nupen had been planning a different film at the time, but when his original plans fell through, he recalled being deeply impressed by a recent concert in Oxford involving this music and these musicians. Since he'd already booked St John's Church in London's Smith Square for his other project, he rang Barenboim, du Pré and Zukerman (all close friends) and persuaded them to recreate their performance instead.
In terms of mise-en-scène
, Nupen generally takes the opposite approach to that of Ken Russell and Tony Palmer (at the time his two main rivals in the field of serious classical music documentary) in that he favours bringing the music centre stage with no visual distractions. Despite the shoot's off-the-cuff spontaneity, there must have been some advance preparation with reference to the score, as one of the three cameras is invariably in exactly the right place to capture the main points of interest, and most of the film is in medium or tight close-up with only very occasional long shots revealing the white pillars and checkerboard flooring of the church's architecture. The effect of a private concert performance is further enhanced by the decision to retain what happens between the movements, such as a brief retuning session.The abiding impression is of complete seamlessness, so it's surprising to discover on closer examination that the average shot length is relatively brief, with much back-and-forth cutting between the performers as they concentrate on the music with the occasional sideways glance to acknowledge and respond to their colleagues' contribution. The percussive piano motif that recurs throughout the first movement is enhanced by well-timed cuts to Barenboim's fingers striking the keyboard. With the slower passages, Nupen and editor Peter Heelas favour long dissolves, often between tight close-ups of the musicians' hands (a good example comes with the slowed-down, almost sepulchral opening of the second movement, which gives the trio its nickname) before picking up a jauntier visual tempo to match the lively, sprung, sometimes pizzicato rhythms of the final movement.The Ghost
is a textbook example of how to film chamber music to its best advantage - everything about Nupen's treatment serves to emphasise the notion of a musical conversation between three equal partners (as opposed to his overwhelmingly soloist-centered interpretation of the Elgar concerto). The fourth onscreen presence, Barenboim's anonymous page-turner, is usually (and presumably deliberately) blocked by one of the other musicians in the foreground, but fleeting glimpses inadvertently provide a visual extension of the piece's title.
Christopher Nupen himself is credited as co-executive producer of all the Opus Arte DVDs of his work, which in practice translates as "director-approved transfers". Since Nupen owns the majority of his films outright (he left the BBC in 1968 to form the production company Allegro Films), it's probably very safe to assume that these DVDs were mastered from the best available materials.Picture
Although this is a European DVD containing a British film, it's been encoded for the American NTSC video system. This may seem surprising at first glance, but it's common practice with classical DVDs for two good reasons: profit margins are so tiny that it makes sense to cater for the largest possible market and, much more importantly, it means that there are no pitch-shift issues. However, these particular transfers are non-progressive, which isn't an ideal approach given the number of close-ups of fingers performing rapid and complex figurations - without some form of software correction, the picture interlacing is occasionally distracting.
That aside, these are generally very strong transfers. The source print of Jacqueline du Pré and the Elgar Cello Concerto
is virtually pristine (it's clear that a hair-in-the-gate incident at the 19-minute mark is the fault of one of the original cameras, as it's only present from the one angle) and most of the visible blemishes are present in the archive footage and were probably there all along. However, I suspect this came from an analogue videotape source - there’s a telltale texturing to the image throughout (including the colour footage that opens it), plus occasional ghosting, especially during the Elgar concerto itself. All of which actually suits the material very well, accentuating the impression of something fleeting and impermanent that was only captured by chance.By the time The Ghost
was made, the BBC had switched over to colour, and the noticeably sharper picture suggests that this transfer has been made directly from the original film materials. The source print has generally been well preserved, with only the very faintest indication of an age-related magenta cast, which in any case may be exaggerated by Barenboim's scarlet shirt. The physical condition is very good indeed, with hardly any signs of damage, though the picture is occasionally marred by tiny glitches that cause the frame to judder slightly (it looks as though the original film has been momentarily warped). However, these are few and far between, last for fractions of a second, and don't affect appreciation to any significant degree - not least because the accompanying sound is entirely unaffected. The extreme close-ups come across very well, with plenty of fine detail, and the 16mm source is only betrayed by a faint but not at all unpleasing patina of grain.Both films are framed at the original 4:3, the universal television standard at the time, and therefore don’t need anamorphic enhancement.Sound
The box claims to offer PCM mono and stereo soundtracks, but doesn’t specify which film has which, and they both came across as mono to my ears - which is what I’d have predicted, since they were made for television a good couple of decades before the introduction of Nicam stereo, never mind surround sound. However, there's little to complain about here: uncompressed PCM is undoubtedly the best audio format to use when reproducing less than pristine material.As for the quality of the sound… well, it's what one would expect for recordings of this age, and it should be borne in mind that they were never originally intended for reproduction through anything other than a tiny mono TV speaker. Unsurprisingly, the 1967 documentary fares worse, especially during the Elgar concerto itself, which is marred by faint but noticeable tape hiss throughout and other occasional problems, such as a nasty flutter at the start. The documentary sound is mostly fine, though the quality of the archive footage varies.Though made only three years later, The Ghost
is very noticeably superior on the sound front. It probably helped that it was made on a much smaller scale with only three musicians, but the recording is altogether cleaner and clearer. If sampled on headphones and divorced from the pictures, it sounds a little too close for complete listening comfort, but it's very effective in its proper context.
Simple, clear and intuitive, the menus make navigation a breeze. 'Films' links to a sub-menu offering each individual film (plus the short Allegro Films promo - see below), which in turn leads to sub-menus offering options to play with or without the director's introduction, or select specific chapters. The Elgar film offers 24 chapters, The Ghost
just five, though it's hard to think what else it could offer besides the start of the film, three separate movements and the end credits.Returning to the main menu, 'Performances' links directly to the start of the central Elgar and Beethoven works, and offers sub-menus highlighting individual movements. 'Extras' offers the photogallery and the longer Allegro Films promo (which also has a chapter submenu linking to each individual film), and 'Subtitles' offers French, German and Spanish options - not English, though it could be argued that the hard of hearing would be unlikely to get much out of these films in the first place. One slightly unnerving touch is the design: based around sepia-tinted moving images of du Pré performing, they’re presented in total silence, creating a somewhat ghostly impression. The other peculiarity is the fact that they’re in anamorphic widescreen, unlike the films they link to.Extras
With one major exception (We Want The Light
), the Opus Arte Christopher Nupen DVDs contain very similar extras: a personal introduction to each film, two promotional films for Allegro Films' output, a stills gallery and a booklet. Somewhat disingenuously, the 154-minute running time on the back of the box includes all these, even though the Allegro promos are duplicated across all the Nupen DVDs: the films themselves only clock in at 101 minutes.The Allegro promos consist of a short trailer (just over two minutes) and a much longer mini-feature that features clips from most of Nupen's films - surprisingly, and gratifyingly, these have been chapter-stopped for individual access. Although it runs 35 minutes, the fact that 26 films are featured means that the clips are necessarily somewhat brief, but as an appetite-whetter it more than does its job. The compilation is presented in 4:3, with the more recent films shown in letterboxed 16:9 - until the final clip, featuring four minutes of We Want The Light
(2004) shown in anamorphic widescreen. The sound is PCM stereo, though most of the clips are of course in the original mono.
Christopher Nupen has recorded short video introductions to the longer items on the DVD. Curiously, the main film gets a shorter introduction (3:15) than does The Ghost
(6:54), though this makes sense as the latter has no spoken content at all and there's therefore more scope for offering background information. In each, Nupen talks about the film's genesis and supplies anecdotes from the production, as well as a more general overview both of what he was trying to achieve at the time and a reflection on how the films appear to him today. He also contributes a very short introduction (1:20) to the main Allegro Films promo, which outlines his enthusiasm for the DVD format and his ambition to convert as many of his films to five-inch golden platters as possible.A photo gallery offers 26 uncaptioned black-and-white images of du Pré, presented in what appears to be chronological order. The back-and-forth navigation options are thankfully presented outside the main picture area. Many of the stills also appear in the main booklet at a rather higher resolution.There are two booklets, the bigger (24-page) one including a full chapter list (including the titles in the longer Allegro promo), Nupen’s own personal introduction to both du Pré and the films, a short du Pré biography, several photographs and, most usefully, a complete list of all the music featured on the DVD (including the excerpts in the first part of the Elgar film), with performer credits. The introduction and biography are also supplied in French and German. Most of this material is also included on the DVD, though it's helpful having a printed version for easier reference.The second booklet is more of a leaflet (it's just four pages), but DVD Times
readers will find it just as compelling, since it consists of what can only be described as a rhapsodic paean of praise to our favourite consumer entertainment medium (he said something very similar in this article
for the web magazine Audiophile Audition
). Much of it is devoted to Nupen describing in some detail just why he thinks DVDs are superior to anything that came before them - not just for picture and sound quality, but also for the potential offered by their non-linear construction. He clearly can't wait to release all his films on DVD, though given the presentational standards he's set so far, as well as the perennial financial uncertainty of the classical music market in general (never mind its DVD niche), this is likely to take several years if it happens at all.Conclusion
Christopher Nupen's films have long been renowned for sensitivity and fastidiousness, so it comes as no surprise that the same qualities should infuse their DVD presentation as well. Lovingly restored, with the transfers supervised and approved by the filmmaker himself, for all my minor technical quibbles this is as effective a showcase as these two films are ever likely to get. Although I'd probably favour the other great du Pré film, The Trout
(double-billed on DVD with the extraordinary Schubert elegy The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow
) as a first choice for Nupen beginners, anyone who's even vaguely interested in the music or performers shouldn’t hesitate to snap this one up.