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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Enoch Arden - A melodrama for piano and speaker after Alfred Lord Tennyson Op. 38 (1896-7)
Five Piano pieces for solo piano Op. 3 (1880-1): Andante No. 1 [4:17], Allegro molto No. 4 [4:24]
Emanuel Ax (piano); Patrick Stewart (speaker)
rec. 22 January 2007, Air Studios (Lyndhurst), Hampstead, London. DDD
SONY 88697090562 [61:42]

The story of Tennyson’s poem, apparently based on a true incident, concerns three children in a small seaport. Both Philip Ray, the miller’s son, and Enoch Arden, a sailor’s orphan, love Annie Lee, but she eventually marries Enoch and they have three children. After a spell of ill fortune Enoch finds no alternative but to sign up on a ship to China. It is wrecked on the way home, and Enoch spends many years on a remote island. Annie eventually gives up hope of his return and accepts Philip’s offer of marriage. Enoch is rescued and returns home, unrecognizable, to learn of Annie’s marriage and her child by Philip. He does not wish to disturb the happiness which she has now found, and eventually dies, giving instructions that after his death his family can be informed of his identity and reasons for not revealing it.
How many people read it nowadays? Probably few, and yet it was one of Tennyson’s greatest successes, selling in immense numbers after its publication in 1864 and in translation in Germany. It was considered by Matthew Arnold to be the best of Tennyson’s works. Puccini was offered it as a plot for an opera, but declined. Strauss wrote his version for the theatre director Ernst von Possart and the two toured it with great success. John Steane, in his book on Tennyson, describes the poem as “largely a period piece, something very central to nineteenth century taste, kindly, warm, picturesque, moral; unsophisticated, unaristocratic, unintellectual, uninvigorating”. It would be hard to argue with that description, and yet when aided by Strauss’s alternately vigorous and tender accompaniment and with a full-blooded approach from both performers it can still make a strong effect. It does so on the two earlier recordings I know, by Claude Rains and Glenn Gould, and by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus (in German). It does so to a degree here, but I sense at times that the performers may be slightly embarrassed about the material. I assume that this is the reason for the many minor changes to the spoken text, in particular the omission of the final lines, intended to be spoken over music:
            “So past the strong heroic soul away,
            And when they buried him the little port
            Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.”
Bathetic? Maybe, but on both of the earlier recordings they do have considerable impact. Here the piano alone is left to carry their weight, and I don’t think that it is just familiarity with the printed text that makes me feel that something essential is missing.
There are no similarly major changes earlier, but there is a fatal lack of urgency at times, and a lack of the rhetorical manner which is an essential part of the curious hybrid form that is melodrama. On the other hand the recording as such is much better than its predecessors and the engineers have obtained a very believable balance between speaker and piano.
The two short piano pieces used as fillers are both very early Strauss, very appealing but not likely to sway purchasers greatly. Overall this did not live up to my expectations, but a rival is unlikely to turn up soon so that I must recommend it as the only modern recording of this potentially very affecting work, whilst retaining a strong personal preference for the much more full-blooded performance by Rains and Gould.
John Sheppard


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