Saturday, February 3, 2018

A rare outing for Strauss’s (and Tennyson’s) Enoch Arden


First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

The tragic homecoming of Enoch Arden, from “The Leisure Hour”, published in 1864.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, autographed
portrait by Elliott & Fry, 1860s.
Richard Strauss’s 1897 “monodrama for speaker and piano” Enoch Arden Op.38, TrV.181 is something of an oddity in his output. It dates from when his main focus was on the orchestral tone-poem (following Also Sprach Zarathustra and contemporary with Don Quixote), though these years also saw a considerable output of songs with piano accompaniment. It was written as a thank-you to the actor Ernst von Possart, who had helped Strauss gain the post of Chief Conductor at the Bavarian State Opera, and he and Possart toured together widely with the melodrama. 

On the rare occasions when Enoch Arden is performed today, it is programmed as a composition by Strauss, but in truth it is the spoken text of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s lengthy narrative poem that does the expressive heavy lifting, rather than the relatively sparse piano accompaniment. Thus it is the narrator rather than the player who bears the main burden in performance, and it is good to report that the actor Sherman Howard successfully held the February “First Friday” audience’s attention for almost an hour, duly supported by pianist David Kaplan. 

Sherman Howard.
This was an ambitious departure for concerts in this series from Classical Crossroads Inc., which usually comprise short instrumental recitals, but it was a welcome opportunity to experience live a work (as well as a genre) that’s largely vanished from concert-halls, though this piece has in fact been recorded several times, amongst the duos tackling it the most celebrated being Patrick Stewart and Emanuel Ax, and in former years Claude Rains with Glenn Gould. 

David Kaplan.
I did feel, however, something of a mismatch between the text and the music, or rather between poet and composer. Apparently Tennyson wrote and published his “Enoch Arden” (in 1864, ironically the year of Strauss’s birth) as part of a deliberate –and successful, to judge by sales figures – attempt to broaden his public appeal in true fulfillment of his role as England’s Poet Laureate.

This elaborately sentimental tale of tragic loss and noble self-denial chimed exactly with High Victorian taste, but one could argue that, a generation on in the fin-de-siècle 1890s and five years after Tennyson’s death at the age of 83, its emotional world had receded into remoteness from the most up-to-date sensibilities, as exemplified musically by the style – by turns maliciously witty, grandiose, and even savage – of the foremost young lion (still only 33) of Late Romanticism. One can imagine a more appropriate match with, say, the Arthur Sullivan of Lost Chord fame.

Richard Strauss.
Thus, to my ears, and despite the best advocacy of Mr. Kaplan, Strauss’s musical response to Tennyson’s tale seemed perfunctory, aside from some nicely rippling scene-setting at the start (the composer’s onomatopoeic skill for a marine effect here) and some hefty pointing-up of the main dramatic moments later on. As for the narration, I had feared we might be in for some over-strenuous actorly hectoring (with some awful recorded examples in mind), but Mr. Howard’s narration was a model of careful sensibility and articulate navigation through a lot of words (but which might have benefited in terms of clarity from a bit of discreet miking during the piano’s weightiest passages). Indeed, I felt he could have let rip a bit more at the most dramatic moments. 


“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, February 2, 2018.
Photos: Enoch Arden: Wikimedia commons; Tennyson: Wikimedia commons; Strauss: The Guardian archive; Sherman Howard: Quantum Leap wiki; David Kaplan: Samantha West.

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