* Enoch Arden, op. 38
* 5 Piano Pieces, op. 30/1,4
Patrick Stewart (speaker), Emanuel Ax (piano).
Sony 8697-09056-2 Total time: 61:45
Summary for the Busy Executive: Strange.
Richard Strauss became the wealthiest classical composer of his time
through a combination of genius and hard work. According to Norman Del
Mar's classic study, he worked regular hours every single day, like a
department-store magnate who had worked his way up from peddler with a
sack, winding up with 88 opera and dozens of significant scores (like
the oboe concerto and the Four Last Songs) without numbers. He was also
on the lookout for opportunity, although those compositions calculatedly
undertaken for gain -- Schlagobers comes to mind -- didn't do all that
Enoch Arden had its roots in such an impulse. The end of the nineteenth
century saw a craze for the genre of melodrama -- that is, recitation
accompanied by music. Strauss also thought he had found a lucrative
performance opportunity and arranged a tour with an actor friend. In
1897, the combination of the popular (at the time) Tennyson poem set to
Strauss proved successful in what turned out as the only tour. Schedule
conflicts prevented further ones.
Like the Twenties raccoon coat, however, the crazes for melodrama and
for Tennyson faded (does anyone, other than an English major, still read
Idylls of the King?) soon thereafter, and Strauss's piece turned into
something hidden in the attic of music history. In 1962, Glenn Gould,
who enjoyed rummaging through attics, made a recording of the work with
Claude Rains as the speaker -- my first encounter with this curiosity.
At the time, I was all for modern music and had little patience with
what seemed to me the horsehair-sofa Victorianisms of Strauss. In fact,
to paraphrase Wilde, I would have had a heart of stone to have listened
to Enoch Arden without laughing.
And there's plenty to laugh at. Tennyson's poem concerns a sailor and
his wife who fall on hard times. He is offered a berth on a long ocean
voyage. His wife begs him not to go, but he ships out anyway and gets
shipwrecked on a tropical isle for a dozen years. He finally gets rescued
and returns to his village to find that his wife has married his best
friend (sounds like Castaway so far, doesn't it?). Rather than break
up their happy home, he doesn't announce himself, slips off unnoticed
and unknown, and dies, all in blank (pretty blank) verse. The poem was
hugely popular in its day, but that day has come and gone, although its
basic plot lives on in dozens of movies. Strauss's music essentially
mickey-mouses the action. At times, you feel as if you're watching a
D. W. Griffith movie.
The Claude Rains/Glenn Gould recording struck me then as an extravaganza
of camp. Rains, a former teacher of elocution with Gielgud and Olivier
as his students, played it rather plummy, with Gould larding (you should
pardon the expression) the schmaltziness with fussy little chromatic
And yet . . . neither Strauss nor Tennyson sloughed anything off.
Tennyson enshrined his little tale in, from a purely technical standpoint,
a masterful blank verse that nevertheless keeps to the simplicity of the
characters and of the story. Chesterton called Tennyson's style
"exquisitely ornamental" (although he wasn't handing out pure compliments
at the time), and you can see what he means here. Strauss created a
mini-Wagnerian drama, with Leitmotiven for each of the three main
characters, and they weave in and out. Enoch gets an upwardly-striving
theme, Philip (his best friend) a placid one, and Annie (the wife) a
skittish little number that sounds like the love motif from Tristan on
speed. Oh yes, dat ol' devil sea gets its own motif as well.
Stewart, a stalwart for many years of the Royal Shakespeare Company,
certainly knows how to speak blank verse. What's amazing is that he
actually invests the recitation with a good bit of legitimate drama, and
just a trace of what I hear as a Yorkshire accent, suitable to villagers
who make their living from the sea. The stilted, high-flown sentiments
and noble martyrdom somehow suit these characters and the limits of their
education and circumstances. Despite all my cynicism, I found myself
tearing up at All the Right Moments (and hating myself for it, by the
way), chagrined that a master was playing me like a kazoo.
Ax goes through the fussily quaint score with real musicality, if not
with Gould's technical brilliance, and that's all to the good. Ax has
emerged as a "player's player." He brings a sensitive intellect to a
wide range of material -- from Haydn to Schoenberg. On the CD, he also
plays pieces from Strauss's op. 3, written at 16, when the young composer
labored under the influence of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and his domineering
father, who practically banned Wagner from the house. When Strauss
finally got out from under and had produced Tod und Verklarung and Don
Juan, his papa was a bit nonplussed, to say the least. Ax plays them
as if they are by Schumann, and much better than Gould, incidentally.
Under Gould's fingers, these pieces come across as nothing much. With
Ax, they become little gems. Ax has a fine reputation in Schumann chamber
music as a partner, but he really ought to tackle and record some of
Schumann's solo literature.
The balance of the recording seems slightly problematic, with Stewart
a bit over-miked. I suspect the producers and the artists made a
deliberate choice, modeling the aural image on a film soundtrack.
Nevertheless, I could have stood a little more piano (cowbell).
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