The Dream of Gerontius

Filmed in colour from Canterbury Cathedral in 1968, this DVD represents the only existing film of Sir Adrian Boult conducting The Dream of Gerontius. Sir Adrian Boult championed Elgar’s music throughout his life, following the composer’s prophetic words in a letter to the conductor: ‘I feel that my reputation in the future is safe in your hands’. Featuring a stellar cast of soloists including Dame Janet Baker, this performance is redolent of Sir Adrian Boult’s ‘commendable energy and typical humanity’ (The Gramophone Guide review of Boult’s 1975 studio recording of The Dream of Gerontius). This DVD also features a 60-minute documentary on Sir Adrian Boult produced by the BBC in 1989 to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

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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.

– Stephen Johnson

EDWARD ELGAR 1857 – 1934
The Dream of Gerontius op.38
Janet Baker
Peter Pears
John Shirley-Quirk
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra

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Weight 1 kg