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DVD Review

Edward Elgar

ICA Classics DVD 5140

The Dream Of Gerontius

  • Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano
  • Peter Pears, tenor
  • John Shirley-Quirk, bass-baritone
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult
ICA Classics ICAD5140 2DVDs 100m+60m
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Elgar's The Dream Of Gerontius is a cornerstone of the great English choral Romantic period repertoire (it was completed in 1900). It is a uniquely English work for all its heavily Roman Catholic origins, sources, imagery and purpose. So it would have been fitting if the three arguably greatest soloists of their generation, mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, tenor Peter Pears and bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk had recorded it under surely Britain's greatest post war conductor, Adrian Boult, with a major London orchestra.

In fact, neither Boult (EMI CDS747208-8), Barbirolli (EMI CMS763185-2) nor Britten (Decca 448170-2) recorded the work with that combination of soloists for LP. Boult had left his position as Director of Music at the BBC, which he held from 1930 (when he founded the BBC Symphony Orchestra) to 1942. But the conductor was at the height of his conducting glory when a performance of The Dream Of Gerontius was broadcast on Easter Sunday (April 1968) having been recorded over two days in the previous month. (Sadly, the BBC's current Philistinism and lack of understanding of the importance of serious music means that such a thing could not happen these days.) It took place in Canterbury Cathedral and was recorded on film, in color. It is that performance (which was broadcast again by the BBC just over 20 years later, on April 8 1989) that forms the bulk of this eminently collectible DVD released by ICA Classics. It comes with a second, "bonus" DVD, a portrait of Boult.

Two aspects of the music on this DVD are likely to strike the listener before any other. The first, and most important, is the extent to which it's possible, easy, and indeed desirable to experience Gerontius as a superb account of one of the greatest works of its kind in the repertoire; and not just an interesting historial document (although it is that as well, of course). This Gerontius is very much Boult's (after it is Elgar's, whom the conductor so resembles physically in profile, of course). Boult heard his first Gerontius at the age of 15 only a few years after its completion. Actually, he wasn't very impressed. But another BBC broadcast from 1936 indicates how little his conception changed once the conductor had matured and made it his own… he will surely always be this oratorio's supreme interpreter; all Elgarians (and lovers of the repertoire, indeed) should not hesitate to get this DVD.

While pausing to reflect on how young the soloists look, and were (John Shirley-Quirk appears somewhat nervous even when settled into the "Proficiscere" at the end of Part I – he was born but a year after Boult took over at the BBC), you will notice the dated quality of the recorded sound. The tape inevitably lacks dynamic contrast, but is in stereo, and has a somewhat flat tone. The chorus loses out the most in this respect as their collective voice needs really soar at a few key points; and seems held back. This all quickly passes, though. And the listener is inexorably taken up with the splendor of Elgar's famous nobilmente spirit as what may be regarded as a Victorian "Everyman" dies, is translated to Heaven and begins his understanding of death and the promises of the afterlife.

Long, and at times less than steady, shots of the Cathedral, its beautiful stained glass and timeless stone carved details are a major feature of the DVD. But then that was how (BBC) television did things in those days. The shots of gargoyles (even some of them "animated" by rather gratuitous and intrusive camera tricks) during the first "But Hark…" is a little fey for modern listeners and viewers and is unnecessary. It detracts somewhat from the gravitas of the enterprise. It was felt that "stardom" (what we'd wince at as an obsession with "celebrity" these days) was unnecessary then. The singers – even the soloists – were there to create a greater whole. No one player or singer of the company was to do anything other than convey the beauty and sublime nature of the music.

It's hard to tell whether anyone unused to such conventions, younger listeners probably, will be as persuaded by the paradox which results. It is to be hoped that they respond to the musical qualities, the essence of Elgar's setting of Newman's measured yet almost unbearably intimate text – at least as mediated by Elgar's equally sedate yet unremittingly insistent tonalities and melodies. It's not difficult to find that the music is actually enhanced and made more alive by this apparent neutrality of presentation. Since no musician overstates their case under Boult's rather long (he was famed for minimal gestures when conducting even large forces) baton, it is the essence of what Elgar wrote which affects us the most. It extends across the entire width of our listening horizon for more than an hour and a half. It's to this essence that this DVD is rightly a simple and enduring testament.

The singing of the three soloists is (understandably) fresh and keen. The delivery and projection of each is in its way majestic and commanding. Pears' approach draws in calm and the deep satisfaction that surely Newman wished to convey a Christian's death should lead to. Despite being perhaps the weakest of the three performances (inadequate preparation has been cited), it's nevertheless a stunningly convincing one. Shirley-Quirk, who is both the Priest and Angel of the Agony, suggests an authority which is accepted by Gerontius because of its compassion and restraint. Baker's Angel is tending, understanding, supporting – but without conveying either the maternal, nor the peremptory. She is performing rather than drawing on the dramatic. And is thus less declamatory than her two male counterparts. At the same time, her extreme sensitivity and gentleness (evident from the start of her first lines during "I went to sleep") form a winning combination. Is it fanciful to detect in the three singers placed across the Norman stone a comradeship and personal togetherness apart from and additional to the stylized roles they took here? Even though (theatrical) interaction between Gerontius and the Angel and Angel of Agony is almost non-existent; as it should be. Such an approach has the added benefit of folding the danger of anything overly rhetorical away from spectacle and back where it belonged – in the text and Elgar's sublime music which lifts it so high.

Some listeners from later generations might mistake elegance and dignity for a certain stiffness in body language. But that is how this music was believed best performed almost 50 years ago. They only have to look away or close their eyes to hear an extraordinary force of life and spirit in the music. Elgar did not want theatre. What we have here is exemplary; full of conviction; alert with energy; and dignified, very moving.

The second DVD is one hour long and provides a clear and balanced overview of Boult, his life and musical strengths and vast contribution to music. It uses a well-documented commentary by the late Vernon Handley with a selection of other conductors and musicians and industry specialists. Boult's championing of new music, his broader European influences are outlined. His undemonstrative (personal) style and presentation are emphasized. These always resulted in economy and concentration with the result that… "Everything he did came out in the sound of the orchestra…" recalls Handley, tellingly; "…it was more like remembering how to conduct than learning how to conduct." There are ample, appropriate extracts (audio and video) showing not only how Boult was in many ways the last of a kind (although a very influential one), but at the same time an innovator. He was determined in his views without ever being opinionated or one to blow his own trumpet.

The booklet that comes with the DVDs contains much useful background on the context and history of this recording. It explains, for instance, how the organ at the Cathedral was unavailable during the scheduled recording dates and so how organist Charles Spinks was actually playing in a nearby parish church using a live TV link; how the new color cameras were unreliable and often stopped working; and how the distances between (groups of) performers presented challenges which were overcome – to the delight of all involved, especially Sir Adrian.

No-one who loves this repertoire should be in any doubt: this is a performance to get, to get to know and to revel in. Yes, it is a testament to priorities of performance and presentation from almost half a century ago. But it's a credit to the performers, producers and originators that it's nevertheless the sublime music of Elgar given by experts in the genre (and obviously adherents to the composer's deep spiritual commitments) which persists in all ways. Warmly recommended in every respect.

Copyright © 2017, Mark Sealey