Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius

By Seckerson, Edward | Gramophone, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius


Seckerson, Edward, Gramophone


Elgar [G] [DVD] The Dream of Gerontius, Op 38 Dame Janet Baker mez Sir Peter Pears ten John Shirley-Quirk bass-bar London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult ICA Classics (F) (2) [DVD] ICAD5140 (100' + 60' * NTSC * 4:3 * Stereo * 0 * T) Recorded for broadcast at Canterbury Cathedral, March 29,1968. Disc 2 contains 'Adrian Cedric Boult', a documentary presented by Vernon Handley, first broadcast April 8,1989

As television presentations go, this often measurable account of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius is very much of its time--1968. The location was Canterbury Cathedral and producer Brian Large was going to make the most of it.

So prepare yourself for a surfeit of stained glass, queasy zooms, shaky focus-pulling and more gargoyles than Elgar's host of gibbering demons could ever shake a stick at. It isn't subtle (on the contrary), it isn't discreet, but it gives you a sense of place and it takes great pains to move as far away as is possible from the standard BBC pointand-shoot approach to music broadcasts.

I take some exception to the opening page or two of the Prelude sounding from under screen captions but it took courage to resist showing any performers at all until almost the very end of the 10-minute Prelude, where the camera pulls back to reveal the patrician figure of Adrian Boult for the first time; and there is a positively daring cut to black-screen in the moments preceding the blinding light which marks the moment Gerontius comes face to face with his maker.

But most effective of all is Large's decision to have the soloists off-score and performing from memory not behind music stands but against the stonework of the transept; and--bearing in mind that date again, 1968--we find three great artists at the absolute top of their game. Peter Pears, of course, went on to record the piece with his partner Benjamin Britten but his artistry and great affinity with the ethos of the work was never better demonstrated than it is here. For those who have an issue with the distinctive Pears sound (with all its inherent 'Englishness') I can only say that you need to put that aside and focus instead on the sheer intensity and open-heartedness of the singing, the judicious weighting of words and innate sense of the music's beauty and line. Then there is the 'illuminated' quality of his head-voice, so exquisite in the prayerful hushed reprise of 'Sanctus fortis', and contrasting so dramatically with the thrillingly full-blooded release of 'In thine own agony'. …

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