Listening through the lens

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Listening through the lens is the recently published memoir of BAFTA-award winning documentary-maker Christopher Nupen, who has made more than 70 productions on classical music and musicians.

Nupen’s pioneering portrait-films count among their subjects Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pré, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Itzhak Perlman, Andrés Segovia, Alice Herz-Sommer, Yevgeny Kissin and Daniil Trifonov, many of whom have become lifelong friends.

His 1969 film The Trout, featuring Barenboim, Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré and Zubin Mehta performing the beloved Schubert quintet, is legendary; while We Want the Light has won some of the most prized awards in documentary making.

In his book, Nupen tells the story of his varied and often astonishing life…

An Extraordinary Book

Upon its arrival, I was immediately struck by the gorgeous presentation that publishers Kahn & Averill have afforded Listening through the lens. Always a publisher that makes an extra effort to give books a high quality finish, on this occasion they have truly excelled.

The sturdy hardback volume has a classy but immediately engaging feel, the duck-egg coloured lettering of the title echoed throughout by similarly coloured chapter numbers and headings. The standard text, given in a well-sized and highly readable font, is printed on high quality cream paper, and all bound to the highest standards.

There are also 20 glossy-white pages given over to black-and-white and (mostly) colour photographs, grouped in two collections within in the book.

Attached to the inside back cover there is an included DVD featuring around 13 minutes of clips from Nupen’s most important and celebrated films, providing a wonderful overview of his brilliant career. These clips are indexed at the rear of the book, together with a complete filmography listing.

All in all, the presentation of the book is outstanding, and Kahn & Averill must be congratulated for their excellent attention to detail and sumptuous production.

An Extraordinary Life

Nupen was born in South Africa to a family of Norwegian descent. His father was a celebrated Test cricketer and successful figure; Nupen grew up in a comfortable home and enjoyed a good education.

We are told in the book jacket,

Indeed, Nupen wastes little time cutting to the chase in this autobiographical book, recounting his visits to the opera in Johannesburg, where he was enthralled by the performances of visiting stars such as Benjamin Gigli, Tito Gobbi and the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet.

Moving to London aged 18, Nupen was able to further pursue his growing love for music in between studying law, and subsequently working for a time in banking.

The turning point came in 1955 when, aged 21, Nupen was able to attend the reopening of the Vienna State Opera, at which he had a surprise and life-changing encounter with the singer Lotte Lehmann, with whom he embarked on an unexpected liaison.

An Extraordinary Story

Nupen’s account is for the most part pithy, stripping the narrative to its essentials as we follow his progress into broadcasting, from his early days at BBC Radio and then Television, through to his success as one of the great pioneers of broadcasting.

Clearly of far more interest to the writer, the 36 brief chapters that make up this 224-page account of his life focus on his burgeoning relationships with some of the brightest musical stars of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries.

Inevitably for a book of this nature, there are a few “kiss-and-tell” moments, but it’s fair to say that Nupen treats all his subjects with dignity, and portrays his own part in the story with commendable modesty. And this neither diminished the remarkable narrative, nor the telling insight we gain into the lives and personalities of these artists behind the scenes.

For those whose primary interest is in the technical film-making aspects of Nupen’s work, there is insight aplenty. Nupen succeeds in explaining the broadcasting innovations that he both lived through and often spearheaded without ever succumbing to geeky technobabble, and in doing so he draws us all into a deeper and more rewarding appreciation of his films.

Above all, he underlines the crucial essence of his work which surely explains his success: his films are all borne from relationship.

The ease with which his subjects share of themselves flows from an effort to ensure that in each case a closeness and trust was cultivated and fostered between the artists he worked with, and the whole crew involved in each production.

In conclusion

Listening through the lens succeeds both as a discursive autobiography of its author and as a series of delicious anecdotes casting light on the lives and work of some of the greatest classical musicians of recent decades.

Nupen’s attention to literary style is finely tuned, and he delivers writing that is both engaging and detailed. I especially enjoyed his verve in conjuring the ambience and evoking the cultural milieu of the London of the 1960’s and ’70’s, during which his own creativity and ingenuity as a documentary maker spring fervently into being.

Nupen’s deep affinity for classical music and his genuine friendship and love for the subjects of his films burns ever bright throughout this extraordinary book, and I have no doubt that anyone with an interest in Nupen’s work and the artists he portrayed will find themselves thoroughly absorbed and satisfied.

Christopher Nupen has made his mark as one of the great pioneering broadcasters of the classical music world; with this book he equally builds on his extraordinary gift for communication to similarly establish himself as a brilliant and engaging writer.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.