Some very unusual musical works have been composed as gifts to friends. After being appointed chief conductor of the Munich Opera in 1897, Richard Strauss wanted to offer a thank-you to the company’s Intendant, Ernest von Possart, formerly a noted actor, and the result was the melodrama Enoch Arden.
This piece is more or less unique in the 19th-century repertoire. Other composers (Beethoven in Act II of Fidelio or Weber in Der Freischütz) wrote scenes where words are spoken over an orchestral background, but Enoch Arden – a recitation of Tennyson’s poem with an intermittent piano accompaniment – is a one-off.
It surfaces rarely. Retired singers sometimes dust it down as a vehicle to keep themselves active in later life, but few actors venture to perform it. Perhaps there should be more: this nearly hour-long performance by Patrick Stewart, taking a night off from Macbeth and Twelfth Night in Chichester, with Emanuel Ax as pianist, positively flashed past.
The narrative in Tennyson’s poem rarely dawdles, which is probably why Strauss leaves the speaker on his own for long stretches. For all that, some detailed give-and-take is required from the performers. The speaker needs to be part musician and the pianist part narrator for the work to come off and it is hard to imagine this duo being surpassed, with Stewart able to turn the emotions in an instant. Enoch Arden may not be Strauss’s greatest music – one can imagine him improvising the music’s musings with a flourish at the piano – but it was unexpectedly touching here.
The first half of the evening had also been Strauss. The soprano Emma Bell sang two groups of songs in a somewhat broad-brush style – warmly lyrical phrasing, but not very specific on the feelings behind the words – and Ax played a couple of Strauss’s rarely heard piano pieces, two of the Klavierstücke Op.3. As accompanist, he had some strange ideas – he raced through the favourite Zueignung at breakneck speed – but it is always good to have the technical class of a concert pianist in a song recital.
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