LABELS: ICA Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Elgar
WORKS: The Dream of Gerontius
PERFORMER: Janet Baker, Peter Pears, John Shirley-Quirk; London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Adrian Boult
CATALOGUE NO: ICAD 5140
This BBC film, made in Canterbury Cathedral in 1968, was quite a feat for its time. Engineering problems were a constant trial. For one thing, filming required eight cameras – not a problem now, but as there were only nine colour TV cameras in the country the logistics of replacing any that failed were nightmarish. That it feels like a single, organic performance is a huge tribute to producer Brian Large and his team, and of course to Adrian Boult himself, who was able to maintain his sense of Gerontius as a living whole through numerous retakes and sudden interruptions. The use of the Cathedral’s stained glass and stonework to complement the music is often gorgeous, and if some of the effects seem a little naive by modern standards, for its time it was groundbreaking.
Boult’s handling of the Prelude, and his masterly accompaniment – especially to Janet Baker’s radiant final benediction – is so beautiful, so magisterial in its intensity, that it feels as though the score is simply being opened before us, its truths unclouded by any merely human ‘interpretation’. There are places however – parts of the climactic Chorus of Angelicals, or the crescendo leading to ‘Take me away!’ – where the tension flags. Did some of the younger Boult’s doubts about parts of this work remain, even in 1968?
The accompanying documentary is excellent: full of fascinating, moving insights into Boult as man and conductor. In the film we see the wonderfully clear beat, his commanding use of that enormous baton, but we also see how much he communicated with his eyes. Aspiring conductors could learn plenty from this; for the rest of us it’s a beautifully devised portrait of a great musician.