RICHARD STRAUSS: Enoch Arden — Melodrama for Piano and Speaker After Alfred Lord Tennyson, Op. 38; Five Piano Pieces, Op. 3: Nos. 1 and 4 – Patrick Stewart, speaker/ Emanuel Ax, piano – Sony Classical

by | Dec 10, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

RICHARD STRAUSS: Enoch Arden — Melodrama for Piano and Speaker After Alfred Lord Tennyson, Op. 38; Five Piano Pieces, Op. 3: Nos. 1 and 4 – Patrick Stewart, speaker/ Emanuel Ax, piano – Sony Classical 88697-09056-2,  61:40 ****:

Some collectors may recall that Alfred Tennyson’s dramatic Victorian poem in blank verse, “Enoch Arden,” as set to music by Richard Strauss (1897), had a significant recording from CBS with Claude Rains and Glenn Gould some thirty years ago.  This collaboration between colleagues Stewart and Ax derives from a 22 January 2007 session at Air Studios, Hampstead, London. As an example of accompanied recitation, the Strauss setting falls within the genre of incidental music, here comprising a short prelude (easily reminiscent of Schumann’s “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples”) and brief interludes indicative of changes of time and setting. If Patrick Stewart’s voice were a silent film, the music’s leitmotifs would clearly identify each of the characters, Annie’s G often placed singularly between Enoch’s swaggering E-flat and Philip’s triplets in E Major.

The poem, a tale of three childhood friends in a Scottish seaside village, recounts their intertwined destines in a manner reminiscent of Wuthering Heights or the contemporary movie Castaway.  The orphan Enoch Arden and his playfellow Philip Ray both love Annie Lee. Philip must witness the marriage of Annie to Enoch, the latter of whom sets to sea in order to provide for his family. Having disappeared in a shipwreck, Enoch becomes a sort of Robinson Crusoe pining on a desert island; when he returns ten years later, he must bear silent witness to Annie’s having married Philip, who now raises Enoch’s children along with one of their own. Stewart takes all three recited parts, softening his voice with tender inflections for Annie, and lulling a gentle, demure propriety for Philip. A panting hesitation infiltrates Stewart’s narrative vice as Philip courts Annie after Enoch’s prolonged absence. “My Enoch, is he gone?” laments Annie. Strauss intrudes some dream music for Annie’s vision of Enoch “under a palm tree, over him the sun.” Rolling arpeggios intone the hosannahs, suddenly broken off by clarion wedding bells for the nuptials of Annie and Philip. “But never merrily beat Annie’s heart,” always hearing a footstep that might someday be that of Enoch.

Part II does in fact recount Enoch’s painfully slow return after desert island days amidst a “hollow ocean” without any sign of a sail, hearing only “the low moan of leaden-colored seas.”  The narrator laments that “surely, the man had died of solitude.” Finally, “the dewy. . .morning breath of England” comes to Enoch. Enoch hears of the death of his child, the birth of Annie and Philip’s child; he only repeats “lost” to himself, hoping to see the face of Annie to know that she is happy. Move over, Stella Dallas! “When the dead man came to life” generates more agitated music from Strauss not far from Wagner’s Tristan, captures the “blast of doom” that assaults Enoch’s outraged heart. “There speech, and thought, and Nature failed.” The “never” from “Never to let her know” demands a sagging ostinato from Strauss, ending on a plagal cadence begging the question of Enoch’s resolution to keep silent. And confess he does–to an old woman whom he entreats to bear his secret until after his death. “Let me hold my purpose till I die.” Enoch will die, fall back on his pillow, blessing all.

From the Strauss Op. 3 (1881) Emanuel Ax plays two pieces, Andante and Allegro molto, each of which bears colors from Mendelssohn and Schumann. The B-flat Andante hearkens to Schumann’s Humoreske, now reduced to conservative arpeggios rocking between duple and triple meters. The A-flat Allegro molto serves as a dainty scherzo, modulating easily among a number of keys in a manner suggestive of Grieg. As effective salon miniatures, the two pieces charm us, especially as Ax’s articulation is so pure.

— Gary Lemco

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