Strauss’s melodrama was written for his friend, the German actor Ernst von Possart and is based on a translation by Adolf Strodmann of Tennyson’s long narrative poem. The story, apparently based on a true incident, concerns a fisherman, Enoch Arden, who returns home having been thought dead after a shipwreck. His former wife has remarried and the unrecognized Enoch observes her new happiness without revealing himself in his lifetime.
The last recording I heard of “Enoch Arden” was a performance by Patrick Stewart and Emmanuel Ax. In my review I noted the absence of the last three lines of text:
“So past the strong heroic soul away,
And when they buried
him the little port
Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.”
This may have been to allow Strauss’s eloquent final bars to be unaccompanied by speech, but I suspect that it is more likely to have been out of concern that they might be seen as bathetic, a view shared by many literary critics. These lines are however not only there in the present version but what is more David Ripley’s lengthy and interesting notes explain that he regards them as being not a reference to the material cost of the funeral but to the spiritual cost to Enoch of being unable to reveal himself to Annie and his children. I am not wholly convinced about this, but it is good to have a reading which restores these lines and which is very obviously based on a belief in the merits of the poem. Indeed unlike every version I have heard previously it uses not just the cut text that Strauss set (in translation) but extends it to include the whole of Tennyson’s poem. The present version runs to nearly 79 minutes, whereas that by Stewart is just over 53. I found this pure gain. Clearly David Ripley is by no means as experienced an actor as Patrick Stewart or Claude Rains (recorded with Glenn Gould) and his reading does lack many of their subtle touches; he is indeed more usually heard as a singer. Nonetheless his patent sincerity, unapologetic understanding of the poem’s structure and idiom make his reading much more moving for me.
Comparisons are less favourable for the pianist, Chad R Bowles, unsurprisingly when they are with pianists of the quality of Ax and Gould, both of whom project a much more positive impression of the music. Nonetheless he is much more than adequate and together he and David Ripley give a performance I found gripping throughout. It is interesting that apart from this disc the most convincing versions of the work I have heard have been in translation – Fischer-Dieskau in German, and versions in Spanish and Italian that I have come across on YouTube. Perhaps the melodrama (in the non-technical sense) works best at one remove, but the present version comes as close as any to the effect that I would imagine the work would have had on late nineteenth century audiences. “Enoch Arden” may not be Strauss or Tennyson at their greatest but when performed with sincerity and vigour as it is here it is no mere curiosity.