Classical CD Reviews

RICHARD STRAUSS: Enoch Arden, Op. 38 – David Ripley, speaker / Chad R. Bowles, piano – JRI Recordings

It’s strange that the composer whose literary-based works often embrace irony and satire should have chosen as his subject this tale dripping with Victorian sentimentality.

Published on July 11, 2010

RICHARD STRAUSS: Enoch Arden, Op. 38 – David Ripley, speaker / Chad R. Bowles, piano – JRI Recordings

RICHARD STRAUSS: Enoch Arden, Op. 38 – David Ripley, speaker / Chad R. Bowles, piano – JRI Recordings J127 [Distr. by Albany], 78:53 ****:

Alfred Tennyson’s narrative poem Enoch Arden is the sort of stuff that Victorian audiences consumed with a passion but that leaves modern readers queasy. Based on a purportedly true story recounted to Tennyson by his friend the sculptor Thomas Woolner, it tells the tale of a man, shipwrecked for ten years, who returns home to find his wife remarried to one of their mutual acquaintances. The man keeps his return a secret and works at odd jobs just to sustain life

Yet since he did but labor for himself,

Work without hope, there was not life in it

Whereby the man could live. . . .

Heartbroken, he dies with his secret untold.

Written in 1864, coincidentally the year of Richard Strauss’s birth, Enoch Arden was an instant bestseller and had a long afterlife in literary and filmic adaptations. Strauss set the poem in 1897 for his friend the actor Ernst von Possart, who premiered the work. Enoch

Arden takes the form of a melodrama, a genre with a long pedigree and some famous exemplars, including Beethoven’s Egmont, Schumann’s Manfred, and Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat. In a melodrama, part or all of the text is spoken to musical accompaniment. In the case of Strauss’s work, the text is entirely spoken, and the musical accompaniment, on piano, seems remarkably limited by comparison with other pieces in the genre. Also, despite the popularity of Tennyson’s poem even on the Continent, it’s strange that the composer whose literary-based works often embrace irony and satire (Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote were written around the same time) should have chosen as a subject this tale dripping with Victorian sentimentality.

Actually, as bass-baritone David Ripley says in his insightful notes to this recording, Enoch Arden carried on the inquiry that Tennyson began in his most famous poem, In Memoriam, written after the death of his great friend Arthur Hallam. In Memoriam wrestles with the issue of modern religious skepticism and finally comes down on the side of faith, though the victory is hard won and even seems provisional. These doubts are reflected in the doubts that Annie, Enoch’s wife, has about ever seeing him again. And as we know, her doubts are fulfilled in an ironic way. So in a sense, Annie represents the skeptics of Tennyson’s day while Enoch represents beleaguered faith.

More, in his Christ-like patience with his fate and sacrifice of his own happiness so that Annie and her children might be happy, Enoch nobly chooses the path that faith would lead him to. There is even a scene in the garden of Annie’s new home at night in which Enoch falls on his knees and asks God’s help in keeping his secret from his family. It is Enoch’s Agony in the Garden. When he dies, he tellingly cries, “a sail! a sail! / I am saved. . . .” and Tennyson invites us to believe that he is, indeed, saved.

So if Strauss approached his subject without a touch of irony and in fact with some reverence, we can understand why. As Ripley explains, Strauss uses the Wagnerian technique of the leitmotif to portray characters and their surroundings. Enoch, Annie, and her to-be husband Philip all have a leitmotif, as does the sea, a tempestuous G minor theme with which the work begins. Though Strauss’s contributions to the piece are brief, they are mostly quite effective, including the tragic minor-key metamorphosis of Enoch’s theme when he thinks of home, abandoned on his blazing desert island. Just as effective is the music Strauss supplies as background to Annie’s accepting Philip’s proposal of marriage. The piano mimics the sound of wedding bells, but the pealing subtly slows, quiets, modulates to the minor as Annie’s thoughts return to her lost husband Enoch.

The most important thing for a speaker of Enoch Arden to do is to take the proceedings deadly seriously, which is what David Ripley does. He’s a fine actor, with a strong presence, and manages to bring great feeling to the many dramatic—in fact, melodramatic, in the other sense of the word—passages. He does his best to lightly butter the corn, but this is a tear-jerker after all, even if it’s likely to leave modern audiences embarrassed rather than bleary-eyed.
Ripley’s recital of the final lines of the poem has a quiet irony that seems appropriate:

So past the strong heroic soul away.
And when they buried him the little port
Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.

Critics are divided over what to make of these lines. Do Annie and Philip, learning of Enoch’s death, spring for a nice funeral for him? Perhaps. If so, the final irony is that the villagers can never understand the untold cost of this funeral.

Pianist Chad Bowles has less to do than Mr. Ripley but does it well. His pianism is strong, fluent, nicely nuanced.

Enoch Arden
hasn’t been widely recorded, but there is at least one famous interpretation from the early stereo era by actor Claude Rains and pianist Glenn Gould. A more recent effort by Patrick Stewart and Emanuel Ax has gotten generally favorable reviews. I haven’t heard either of these but suspect you’re in good hands whichever team you choose. Ripley and Bowles produce such fine musical results that they represent a sound choice in any event.

– Lee Passarella

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