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Hans KOX (b.1930)
Dorian Gray (1974) [112.08]
Philip Langridge (tenor) - Dorian Gray; Timothy Nolen (baritone) - Lord Henry; Lieuwe Visser (bass) - Basil Hallward; Roberta Alexander (soprano) - Sybil Vane; Jan Blinkhof (baritone) - James Vane; Joep Bröcheler (baritone) - Sir Thomas; Djoke Winkler Prins (soprano) - Lady Gladys; Christine Harvey (mezzo) - Lady Narborough; Joy Wurkum (mezzo) - Lady Agatha; Hélène Versloot (mezzo) - Lady Victoria
Radio Chamber Orchestra/Hans Kox
rec. KRO Radio, Amsterdam Staatsschouwburg, 6 December 1982
ATTACCA 2012-130-131 [66.30 + 45.48]

The influence of Oscar Wilde in the field of opera has never been solely restricted to Strauss’s Salome. There are the two one-act operas by Zemlinsky - A Florentine Tragedy and The Birthday of the Infanta - which have recently been revived to considerable acclaim. There have also been many others, including several attempts at an adaptation of Wilde’s only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wikipedia lists three of them (not including this one), and the most recent version has been that by Lowell Liebermann given rather appropriately in the hedonistic atmosphere of Monte Carlo in 1996. However it has to be said that Dorian Gray presents considerably obstacles to operatic treatment, or indeed to stage presentation as a whole. It has a wide-ranging plot stretching over a period of more than twenty years, and there is a considerable paucity of dialogue in the central section of the novel. Here Kox has made his own adaptation of the work, concentrating on its opening and closing chapters, and although he has made a good job of it there remain a number of loose ends - it is never, for example, made clear what happens to James Vane. The resulting libretto - over 40 pages of A4 typescript - is however very wordy for a short opera of less than two hours, and there is little time allowed for the music to expand.
It must also be admitted that Kox’s music, rushing at a headlong pace to accommodate all of the Wilde text, lacks a sense of ease with English prosody; he correctly sticks to Wilde’s original English with its precisely placed bon mots. In the opening scene we are brought fairly quickly face-to-face with one of Wilde’s epigrams in the phrase “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” But Kox’s setting of this line, conversational in tone, produces entirely the wrong sort of emphasis on the words themselves with the climax of the vocal line coming on the entirely inessential word “of” (CD1, track 1, 10.30). Similarly Kox does not take any advantage of the occasional references to music by other composers; “That was at Lohengrin”, sings Dorian, but there is no expected hint of Wagner in the music at this point. To take just two examples, Britten in Albert Herring and Holst in The Perfect Fool had no problems in inserting sly quotations from Wagner into their scores at appropriate points for comic or ironic effect.
The work was written over an extended period of fifteen years, but it was apparently badly received and mauled by the critics at its 1974 première - the booklet is totally silent about this aspect of the opera’s history - and was withdrawn for revision before this production in 1982. The sound of the radio broadcast places the voices very far forward. There is too much evidence also of some poorly tuned orchestral playing especially from an under-nourished body of strings and some tuned percussion that sound right in the ear. Appreciation of the music itself is also not helped by the booklet. We are given a scanned copy of the typescript libretto - complete with some manuscript amendments - but what we hear does not correspond with the text supplied; this may have been the result of the revisions following the disastrous 1974 première. Scenes are swapped about - for example, the appearance of Sybil Vane is delayed until the fourth scene, when the libretto indicates that this should precede the third scene. This is not to the advantage of the music, because it means that we hear no lyrical music at all until Sybil’s aria Let me not to the marriage of minds which now comes only after over forty minutes of extended dialogue where the words come rattling at the listener with hardly a pause for breath. In the booklet note the composer admits to the influence of Puccini and Wagner; but he lacks their sense of melodic distinction and the strenuous vocal writing has more in common with Berg, with the hero in particular continually straining away in the high register and denied any of the personal charm which is surely an essential part of his character.
It has to be said that the singing itself is very good indeed. Philip Langridge manages to float some occasional quiet notes to good effect, and both Timothy Nolen and Lieuwe Visser sing with lyrical intensity when they are allowed to do so. Roberta Alexander’s diction leaves a good deal to be desired, and she is not always steady of tone; but she spins a beautiful line in her aria, and one regrets her early death even though she is allowed a brief reappearance as a ghost in the final scene. The singers, mainly Dutch, have no problems with the English language although the unattributed mezzo-soprano - I presume it is Hélène Versloot, who otherwise seems to have nothing to sing - who sings the part of Lord Henry’s wife in the second scene is clearly not a native English speaker.
As I have suggested the orchestra leaves quite a lot to be desired. The strings sound seriously under-powered - most disastrously in the would-be expressive interlude which begins CD2, track 3. Frequently their playing is scrappy and ill-tuned. The wind and brass fare better, but they and the percussion are frequently very far forward in the recorded balance. The ‘book scene’ in the Second Act (CD 2, track 2) consists entirely of electronically taped music with distorted voices, but the music does not in itself explain what this is meant to signify; one would have to return to Wilde’s novel to conclude that it describes the way in which Dorian Gray’s mind is poisoned by a book lent to him by Lord Harry, were it not for the fact that an uncredited narrator reads the relevant passage from Wilde. This gives the impression of having been an expedient employed in the live performance from which the radio relay was made or, again, it may have been the result of the composer’s revision of the score which is not reflected in the supplied text.
At the beginning of the penultimate scene Kox finally allows the tempo to relax as Dorian and Lord Harry discuss the meaning of conscience, which at last permits a greater measure of lyricism to enter the music; but the final scene is set as pure melodrama, with Langridge resorting to liberal helpings of Sprechstimme as he confronts the ghost of Sybil and finally destroys his own portrait. The expressionist gestures from the orchestra play up to the horror of the scene, but there is no sense of the music reaching a cathartic conclusion. Strauss did not make that mistake in Salome, despite the horrific nature of the events he was depicting on stage.
One is always grateful for the opportunity to hear new operas which tackle Wilde’s visionary writing and very purple prose, but one must confess that it is unlikely that this setting will establish itself in the repertory; indeed, despite the composer’s revision of the score there appear to have been no further performances subsequent to this one in 1982. So this set preserves a document of some historical importance, but unfortunately no more than that.
Paul Corfield Godfrey