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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The Dream of Gerontius, Op 38 [97:58]
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano – The Angel); Sir Peter Pears (tenor – Gerontius); John Shirley-Quirk (bass-baritone – The Priest/Angel of the Agony); Charles Spinks (organ)
London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 27-28 March 1968, Canterbury Cathedral
Bonus DVD: ‘A. C. B. – A Portrait of one of the Century’s Greatest Musicians, Sir Adrian Boult C. H. (1889-1983).’ Documentary presented by Vernon Handley
BBC Broadcast 8 April 1989
English text included
Picture format: 4:3; Region code: 0 (worldwide); DVD format: NTSC. Sound: stereo
ICA CLASSICS ICAD5140 [2 DVDs: 160 mins]

This filmed performance of The Dream of Gerontius is one I’ve known about for ages but because it was first broadcast shortly before I got the Elgar ‘bug’ I’ve never actually seen it until now.

All the soloists and the conductor have taken part in well-known audio recordings of The Dream of Gerontius and I referred to all of these versions in my survey of the available recordings. The only one of them who had already recorded the work before 1968 was Janet Baker, who had sung for Barbirolli in his 1964 recording (EMI). She would go on to re-record the work for Simon Rattle in 1987 (EMI), a recording in which John Shirley-Quirk also took part. Shirley-Quirk was also involved in the 1972 recording conducted by Benjamin Britten (Decca). There the title role was sung by Peter Pears. Sir Adrian’s own commercial recording (EMI) was not made until 1975 and involved none of the soloists featured here.

Here Boult leads an admirable, authoritative performance. I suspect that the recording was done in long takes, as was Sir Adrian’s preference, and without a great deal of editing. This would explain why a number of errors, mostly slight, by the soloists have not been corrected. Janet Baker gets her words slightly wrong at one point just before the Angel of the Agony’s solo – all the soloists sing from memory – while Pears makes a surprising number of mistakes. These are mainly to do with incorrect words. The most obvious comes towards the end of Part I where, having floated ‘Novissima hora est’ with great plangency he gets in something of a tangle at ‘the pain has wearied me.’ There are also a number of slips in Part II.

Pears was a controversial interpreter of Gerontius for many people but I must say I’ve always found a good deal to admire in his contribution to the 1972 Britten recording. In particular, his care over the text was very welcome and that’s much in evidence here also, despite those stumbled over the words. I was impressed by his performance for Boult though at times it’s a bit more theatrical than we are used to; that brings gains and losses. I find the physical stance he adopts at times in Part I somewhat distracting – oddly, that trait is not in evidence in Part II. There’s also one thing that I find hard to take in Part II. After he has sung his last solo before ‘Praise to the Holiest’ he casts his eyes round for quite some time as if looking for the Heavenly Host; it’s the gesture of a man who is acting on TV and it jars with me. Having said that, I think that in Part I both audibly and visually he conveys the frailty, fear and vulnerability of Gerontius very well – and he gathers himself, very appropriately, at ‘Rouse thee, my fainting soul’. He’s also impressive in ‘Sanctus fortis’. I was particularly struck by his changed demeanour at the start of Part II. Gone is the deathbed suffering and fear of the dying Gerontius and instead Pears conveys, by voice and appearance, a sense of calm and wonder. The dialogue with the Angel is a genuine conversation. Overall, I was drawn in by Pears’ performance.

In the bass roles we have a very youthful-looking John Shirley-Quirk – he was 36 at the time of this recording. He’s splendid as the Priest, his singing sonorous, noble and clear. His assumption of the role of the Angel of the Agony is simply magnificent. He’s suitably imposing at the start and end of the solo but in between he offers subtle and sensitive singing with lots of contrast. That wonderful passage, ‘Hasten, Lord, their hour…..’ sounds glorious and culminates in a rapt delivery of ‘where they shall ever gaze on Thee’. Boult used the word “perfection” of his performance, and rightly so.

And then there’s Janet Baker. Her performance, too, was described as “perfection” by the conductor. I’ve heard her audio recordings many times but I was completely unprepared for the extent to which I would be moved by not just hearing her but also by once again seeing her sing the role. She was 34 when she gave this performance and so we get the full flower of her understanding of the role allied with freshness of voice. She stands almost completely still and sings gloriously and with great intensity. She identifies completely with the words and with the music. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear a number of very fine mezzos in this role over the years but this performance reminds me why Dame Janet was – and is – an incomparable Angel.

The recording is a bit unfair to the London Philharmonic Choir. Too often, especially when singing quietly, they are insufficiently distinct – the resonant acoustic doesn’t help them at all in this respect. I could hear them better in Part II – perhaps my ears had adjusted – and it’s evident that they were giving their all in the Demons’ Chorus but I don’t believe that what we hear overall does full justice to their performance. I don’t think it helps that they’re not able to sing from tiered staging, as would probably be the case today. The orchestra is better captured, especially when they’re heard on their own or when they’re accompanying a soloist. Incidentally, the cathedral organ was out of commission at the time and Charles Spinks contributed the organ part from a parish church a couple of miles away via an audio link. This worked well and you can hear the organ pretty well.

As I’ve indicated earlier, Sir Adrian’s conducting is authoritative and highly effective. There’s decades of experience in conducting Elgar’s music on display here. All the many subtle nuances of Elgar’s score are brought out and the ‘big moments’ are properly exciting.

The performance was directed for TV by Brian Large. He made considerable use of the cathedral. For example, during the Prelude to Part I the cameras focus almost entirely on stained glass windows; it’s not until very nearly the end of the Prelude that Boult and the orchestra come into view. There are very frequent shots of the cathedral interior and these are discerningly chosen so that the pictures enhance the music and also give the viewer an excellent idea of the splendours of the building. The architecture is used moist imaginatively. The cathedral contains a wide selection of gargoyles and the like; these are seen to full advantage during the Demons’ Chorus. It’s an oddity of the production, however, that not once do we see any close shots of the choir – they’re only seen in long shots – and apart from the front desks of the strings we don’t see much of the orchestra either.

The film is nearly 50 years old and that shows itself at times in the sound quality. I’d describe is decent rather than good. However, one can still get a very good idea of the performance and the soloists are very clearly reported.

In summary, this is a fine performance – and film production - of The Dream of Gerontius and its first-ever release on DVD is to be warmly welcomed

There’s a bit of confusion over the date of the recording. ICA’s booklet states that the recording took place on 14 April 1968 and then on the very next line the date of broadcast by the BBC is given as 29 March 1968. I’m sure that’s all wrong. The film was broadcast on BBC TV on Easter Sunday 1968, which fell on 14 April. In his booklet essay Andrew Neill relates that filming of the performance took place on 27 and 28 March, 1968. Mr Neill is a past Chairman of the Elgar Society and a noted authority on the composer and on recordings of his works; I’m inclined to rely on him for accuracy. In passing, one can’t help reflecting how unlikely it is that BBC Television would mount such a project today.

The booklet accompanying this DVD set is unusually good – too often in my experience DVDs are offered with sparse documentation – and it includes a very interesting essay by Andrew Neill in which he discusses Boult’s background with the work and also talks about the recording sessions. There’s also an extract from Sir Adrian’s autobiography, My Own Trumpet (1973) in which he refers to this recording.

The bonus film is well worth watching. It’s an affectionate biographical portrait of Sir Adrian narrated by his sometime pupil, Vernon Handley. The film includes significant amounts of archive footing of Boult on the rostrum and in interview. There are also recollections from Sir Colin Davis, André Previn, Robert Simpson and Christopher Bishop, his producer at EMI for many years. His long-serving secretary, Gwen Beckett also contributes some reminiscences as do three leading members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from the Boult era: Paul Beard, Sidonie Goossens and Marie Wilson.

Boult’s conducting technique was famously un-showy and clear. One fascinating bit of the film shows him conducting a short passage from a piece of music but with no sound. Then the passage is repeated, this time with the sound and the music turns out to be from Holst’s Perfect Fool ballet music.

Another very telling passage comes when two filmed performances of the first movement of the Brahms Violin concerto are superimposed. Everything about the performances is different apart from the presence of Boult on the rostrum. One performance was given in 1968 by David Oistrakh with the LSO in the Royal Albert Hall. The other performance features Nathan Milstein and the LPO in the Royal Festival Hall in 1972. Two very different soloists, then, yet so consistent is Boult in terms of his pacing and, crucially, his understanding of the music’s architecture that we are told the performances more or less synchronise for long stretches and it’s uncanny to see and hear them merging seamlessly into one another in the extracts seen on this film.

It’s ironic, therefore, and a minor irritant, that the sound and pictures often don’t synchronise when the various speakers are talking about Sir Adrian – this is particularly noticeable when Vernon Handley is talking to camera. That’s a small price to pay, however. This is a fascinating portrait of Boult and unlike many ‘bonus features’ it’s one I am likely to view again in the future.

This is a very important DVD release which all Elgar lovers and all admirers of Sir Adrian Boult should try to see.

John Quinn



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