Jean Sibelius Review

This is the fifth in a series of reviews of DVDs showcasing the work of renowned classical music documentarist Christopher Nupen. The others were Jacqueline du Pré In Portrait, The Trout / The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow, Andres Segovia In Portrait and We Want The Light.Given his abiding interest in the subject, Christopher Nupen came surprisingly late to making documentaries about composers, preferring to spend his first two filmmaking decades concentrating on performers. As he admitted in the introduction to this DVD and elsewhere, this was partly because he wasn't sure how best to approach it. He disliked biographical documentaries that stressed the life over the work, and felt that the more fantastical approach of a Ken Russell wouldn't suit him either.But in 1982, he finally took the plunge with the feature-length Ottorino Respighi: A Dream of Italy, which I hope I'll be writing about when it's released on DVD (the intro suggests that it is indeed "when", not "if"), and followed it up with an ambitious two-part portrait of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Made by his usual team (lighting cameraman David Findlay, editor Peter Heelas) it was financed by a number of European television channels, including Britain's Channel Four, which broadcast both parts on Christmas Day 1984, repeating it four years later in its large-scale Nupen retrospective.

The first part, The Early Years (52 mins), is the most conventional, consisting for the most part of a chronological trot through Sibelius' life from his birth in 1865 to about 1909, with some background contextualisation (for instance, pointing out that Finlandia, Sibelius' best-known score and his country's unofficial national anthem, was written in direct response to the Russian Tsar Nicholas II withdrawing an autonomy which Finland had enjoyed under Russian rule for 90 years). It's illustrated on screen with a small amount of actual footage of the composer himself, plus photographs and paintings, shots of locations dear to him (including interiors and exteriors of the house where he spent much of his life), and excerpts from ten of his works - with particular attention paid to Finlandia, his First Symphony and the Violin Concerto.Narration takes a back seat in part two, Maturity and Silence (51 mins). Having set the scene, Nupen here prefers to focus on the music, with just five pieces given far closer scrutiny (the section devoted to the Fourth Symphony lasts nearly twenty minutes) as though they contain some kind of explanation as to explain why Sibelius spent the latter part of his career retreating further and further into anguished introspection, culminating in three decades of silence. Here, Nupen is foreshadowing the approach he'd adopt for his haunting, largely non-narrative Schubert film The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow (first shown in 1994 but actually begun shortly after he'd finished the Sibelius films) in that the music itself does most of the talking, only very occasionally interspersed with narration, and much of that is drawn from the composer's own words - especially when he tries to reconstruct impressions of the Eighth Symphony, unfinished and ultimately burned when Sibelius realised that it wasn't going the way he intended.
Throughout, and as ever, Nupen's approach is far more Radio 3 than Classic FM. Trusting that his audience possesses a minimum level of taste, intelligence and musical discernment, his attitude has always been that if a piece needs to run for several uninterrupted minutes in order to get its argument across, then that's what it gets. The verbal explanations aren't overly technical, but they do assume a basic ability to follow a musical argument - arguably more so in these films than in the ones on the other Nupen DVDs available to date, since they're trying to convey the impact of large-scale symphonic scores without having the time to perform them in full.The music is largely drawn from Sibelius' orchestral works, including six of the seven symphonies, the symphonic poems Finlandia, Kullervo and Tapiola, the Violin Concerto and an archive recording of Andante Festivo, conducted by the composer himself. Aside from this, everything is performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by long-term Nupen collaborator Vladimir Ashkenazy, with Boris Belkin the soloist in the Violin Concerto.
In addition to the onscreen performances, the music is generally accompanied by shots of the Finnish landscape, much of it taken near Sibelius' house in Järvenpää near Helsinki. Often fog-shrouded and snow-bound, with particular attention paid to trees and their reflection in water, their treatment is often so abstract as to become inherently expressionist. They're well integrated into the music - the spine-tingling woodwind introduction to the first excerpt from the Fourth Symphony is synchronised to shots of islands in a gigantic lake, stormy clouds drifting overhead and almost enveloping out a bloodshot sun.
None of the other Nupen films I've reviewed so far includes as much orchestral footage, or such varied treatment of it. Close-ups predominate, with particular attention paid to stringed instruments, brass and timpani, though each piece has its own distinctive approach. Finlandia intercuts brass fanfares with the orchestral response, the thrilling Violin Concerto sequence sets Belkin and Ashkenazy side-by-side, the former seemingly in a transcendent world of his own (an effect enhanced by a haircut that flops over his eyes), the latter urging each section of the orchestra to ascend to a similar plane. Finally, the weird string figurations of Tapiola, wood sprites swirling around the listener, are conveyed via extreme close-ups of violins and cellos, the depth of field so narrow that individual strings turn into shafts of light.But there are also smaller-scale pieces, starting with the charming pizzicato violin and cello duet Vattendroppar (Water Drops), written when Sibelius was still a child, and continuing with two songs: Since Then I Have Questioned No Further and Jubal, each performed by Elisabeth Söderström with Ashkenazy on piano. The lyrics aren't subtitled (in any of the languages on offer), but the original Swedish texts plus translations in English, German, French, Italian and Spanish are included in the booklet. The first song's piano accompaniment also runs alongside the end credits, each part ending with dark-hued chords that in their original context accompany a notably bleak text:
But deep in my soul
I have come to know
That beauty is transient
And happiness won't last.
This philosophy, Nupen seems to suggest, lies at the heart of much of Sibelius' work, suggesting amongst other things why he retreated into silence at a time when his music was unprecedentedly popular.
The DVDThis is the first release on a new DVD label, The Christopher Nupen Films, which aims to continue where the previous quartet of Opus Arte discs left off. Accordingly, although there are a few minor presentational differences (largely cosmetic ones), this disc is squarely in line with the others in terms of both transfer quality and extras.PictureIn common with all the other Christopher Nupen DVDs, this has been encoded for the NTSC system, and it's framed at 4:3, the universal television aspect ratio at the time it was made. In other words, there are no pitch-shift issues and it doesn't need anamorphic enhancement. It was clearly sourced directly from the original film elements, which have been very well preserved - aside from a single hair-in-the-gate incident during a pan across a snowy landscape, I didn't notice any physical blemishes or signs of age-related deterioration. The transfer, too, is to all intents and purposes state-of-the-art, only very slightly marred by some digital artefacting during some of the shots of fog drifting across the treetops, and the overall issue of it being non-progressive (though interlacing is less of an issue than with certain other films, as many of the shots consist of static images or slow pans).
SoundThe first few minutes are less than promising, consisting of narration over a tinny, mono musical backdrop. Fortunately, it's quickly revealed that this is an archive recording dating from 1939, featuring Sibelius himself conducting Andante Festivo - and when it fades out, the speakers leap dramatically into life with a glorious rendition of Finlandia. Presented in PCM digital stereo for maximum fidelity, this is a cracking soundtrack, beautifully balancing the music with Nupen's characteristically crystal-clear diction (aside from a bit of atmospheric background in the Finnish location shots, there's little else to listen to). With a terrific dynamic range that spans the merest whisper of a timpani thrum up to multiple brass instruments against an orchestra playing at full stretch, this is a perfect showcase for Sibelius's music. There are one or two tiny, presumably age-related dropouts, and some very faint tape hiss is apparent behind the quieter passages, but for the most part this was a very pleasant surprise: I wasn't expecting a soundtrack anything like this full-blooded for a 22-year-old TV documentary.MenusUnlike the elaborate Opus Arte menus, the ones on the Sibelius disc adopt a minimalist, text-only approach - but the clarity and simplicity remain as welcome as ever. After an animated intro in which swirling musical notes turn into text, the main menu screen offers self-explanatory Films, Subtitles and Chapters. Select Films and you get direct links to the start of everything on the disc: the two parts of the main feature, the introduction and the two Allegro Films promos. Subtitles are offered in German, French, Italian and Spanish - though not English. The two songs are unsubtitled on screen, but the original Swedish texts plus translations in English and the four subtitle languages are included in the booklet.ExtrasThis is one of the less well-endowed Christopher Nupen DVDs in terms of extras, though it's hard to see what else could have been offered. Since much of the soundtrack consists of music, and each piece is indexed in the chapter menu, the music-only option seen on the Andres Segovia In Portrait and We Want The Light DVDs would be a tad redundant.
But the disc does at least include the basics, starting with a five-minute introduction by Nupen, in which he describes how he came to make the film and how he arrived at an approach to biography that favoured music over events. The Allegro Molto promo has been slightly re-edited and extended to 38 minutes, but is otherwise broadly similar to what was described in the review of Jacqueline du Pré In Portrait (though one unwelcome change is that the individual film extracts are no longer chapter-stopped). And finally, a 20-page booklet includes printed chapter lists, a list of works and performers, a two-page essay by Nupen in the five languages mentioned above, plus texts and translations for the two songs, all interspersed with various photographs and paintings of the composer.
ConclusionGiven the quality of the first four Christopher Nupen DVDs, expectations were high for this inaugural release on his own label. And although the package as a whole is scaled down from some of his more ambitious discs (notably We Want The Light), there's nothing wrong with the basics on offer here: it's an impressive DVD showcase for an eloquent and powerful film. It's also a perfect introduction to the work of this still widely misunderstood composer, requiring very little advance knowledge of his life or music.

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