R. STRAUSS: Enoch Arden, op. 38. 5 Piano Pieces, op. 30/1,4.
Patrick Stewart (speaker), Emanuel Ax (piano).
SONY CLASSICAL 8697-09056-2 (F) (DDD) TT: 61:45


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 well.

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, however, 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 does 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 runs.

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 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 he 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 Verklärung and Don Juan, his papa was a bit non-plussed, 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 the composer'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.

S.G.S. (February 2008)