The pioneering genius of documentary filmmaker Christopher Nupen


Christopher Nupen was one of the most influential documentary filmmakers of our time. Its impact on how we perceive classical music and those who make it has been untold.

Until 1966, when Nupen combined documentary camera and live performance techniques in his very first film for the BBC, the two were considered quite separate entities. Yet Nupen’s innovative flair was such that, as if by magic, they suddenly appeared inseparable. Most notably, the unique qualities that make each of Nupen’s films a special event seem to have been with him from the start.

Focusing on two of the most exciting piano talents of their generation – Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy – for a captivating interpretation of Mozart’s Double Piano Concerto, has naturally been of great help. Still, you feel throughout the natural connection that Nupen had established with her young stars – to have quietly gained their trust, so they felt inspired to give their best with complete naturalness in front of the camera.

Barenboim, Ashkenazy: Double Concerto – Documentary from 1966 – YouTube

Christopher Nupen with Richard Attenborough (credit: BAFTA)

Such is the seamless way this debut film alternates background preparations, rehearsals and performance with a palpable sense of inevitability, that it almost seems fluent – a one-off event, which could not be repeated. Yet, as two other classics from the 1960s demonstrate, it was not an accident, but the start of something entirely new, which would reshape the art of musical documentary. Indeed, this has been the impact of Jacqueline du Pré playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

Homage to Jacqueline du Pré | by AllegroFilms – YouTube

In addition, Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, du Pré and Zubin Mehta performing the Piano Quintet “The Trout” by Schubert:

They seemed to define what this music was.

Until the mid-1960s, there was ambivalence in many people’s minds about the value of filmed classical music recordings – now they couldn’t take their eyes off the screen! Time and time again in Nupen’s work, one experiences an enticing duality of inspired visionary behind the camera and captivating spontaneity in front of it. He seems to play a vital role in what’s going on in front of the camera by a strange power of osmosis – or, to put it another way, than what is happening – verbally and musically – and the way it goes is due to the benevolent presence of Nupen.


Nupen has captured the zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s with remarkable safety of touch. Back then, there was a liberating feeling that anything was possible and that a younger generation had its own distinctive voice. Viewers felt a real sense of empathy for these young musicians, not only as players, but as people. Who could forget the sight of du Pré in a moving wagon, generating enough charismatic joy to light up the National Grid, while singing to his own pizzicato cello accompaniment, seemingly carefree from the world?

Nupen’s magical touch lit up a treasure trove of films featuring all of the above musicians, including an invaluable series of solo recitals with Ashkenazy, highlighted by a timeless documentary on and performance of Rachmaninoff Variations on a theme by Corelli.

Ashkenazy plays Rachmaninoff – Introduction & Variations on a Theme by Corelli Op. 42 – YouTube

NupenCamera1Viewer 4

Even working with musicians of a more introspective tint – guitarists John Williams and Andrés Segovia, for example, or pianist Evgeny Kissin, Nupen has shown a remarkable gift in enabling naturally shy artists to give us a generous, even welcoming, glimpse of their private musical. worlds:

And then there is the “voice”, which takes on its full meaning in Nupen’s remarkable series of documentaries by composers. It has a captivating quality of nostalgia and thoughtfulness, which instantly engages the sympathies of the listener – but also a gentle authority and (most importantly) an absolute sincerity that, like an inspired teacher, metaphorically takes you by the hand and infuses a glow. reassuring interior that all will not only be fine, but really rather wonderful. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his compelling two-part film portrait of Jean Sibelius:


Anyone interested in learning more about this remarkable filmmaker should look for a copy of his top-notch autobiography, Listen through the lens (Kahn and Averill, 2019). Plus, thanks to the wonders of modern media, you can access almost all of Nupen’s movie legacy on YouTube with just the push of a button. If you ever need to remind yourself why we take so much joy in watching wonderful music performed by great musicians, try one of Nupen’s documentaries to remind yourself of what got us there in the first place.


Christopher Nupen: Listening through the lens will air on BBC Four on Sunday October 3 at 9 p.m.

Image credits: Allegro Films

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