Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Mozart was moved to compose one in the Benda style but abandoned it.
Schumann got rid of the orchestra altogether and reduced the melodrama to a
single instrument – the piano. What Weber, Benda and Beethoven did with
melodrama was focus and magnify in a shortish scene on someone’s horror,
terror, or psychological disintegration.

Richard Strauss changed all that and, it is almost universally
acknowledged, not for the better. Enoch Arden certainly doesn’t
lack a first-rate text – it is after all written by Tennyson. Its narrative
is not without drama or emotional impact, either. Arden, a sailor, leaves
his family to go on a voyage in order to financially support them (though,
depending on how you read Tennyson’s poem this can be interpreted in
another way). He is shipwrecked on a desert island with two companions who
later die; Arden is left alone, lost and marooned for ten years. After he
is rescued, he arrives back to find his wife has remarried Arden’s best
friend, Philip, and has given birth to another child after long believing
Arden to have perished. Rather than ruin her happiness he never reveals he
is alive and dies of a broken heart. There is so much tragedy here Strauss
should have been able to have made something remarkable from it. He didn’t.

Tennyson’s literary influences – almost inserted into his poem like
leitmotifs, of which the piano part has many – are some of the most vivid
examples of creative genius. Homer’s Odyssey, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the Biblical Enoch, and, to a lesser extent,
Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. If his Arden is not a
particularly mythological character, he is certainly one with masculine
identities. This is an Arden who is daring, adventurous and ambiguously
selfless. It is a contrast which Strauss could have used to some effect as
a dramatic foil against the dependable Philip Ray, or the wife, Annie, who
can barely find a husband outside a narrow triangle.

So, what went so wrong for Strauss in Enoch Arden? Length is
certainly an issue (performances can run just short of an hour). There is
also no Hoffmansthal to help Strauss out; rather, we have a translation of
Tennyson’s verses by Albert Strodtmann, one of the twelve translators of
this poem since the poem’s publication in Germany in 1867. Strauss may well
have been directly influenced by the 1895 Arden opera by Viktor Hansmann
or, more likely, Strodtmann’s third edition translation with Thumann’s
illustrations (a picture is so often worth more than a thousand words).
Another problem for Strauss might have had less to do with the masculinity
of Arden himself and more to do with the characterisation of Annie and how
she is developed in Tennyson’s poem.

Enoch Arden
was composed in 1897 – a time when Strauss was writing his great Tone Poems
like Don Juan, Macbeth, and Tod und Verkl‰rung
and yet what you get in the melodrama is some of Strauss’s soggiest and
most sentimental music. Strauss would compose Ein Heldenleben just
a year later, in 1898, a work with its strong feminist line in the violin
solos which depict his wife, Pauline. Within a decade, Strauss would have
pushed the melodramatic feminine psyche to the absolute limit and beyond in
his two ground-breaking operas, Salome and Elektra. But Enoch Arden had none of this revolutionary zealousness and perhaps
it simply suffocated Strauss’s creativity because of it. Viewed in Germany
as “spineless”, a woman’s poem, it was perceived as a matrimonial tragedy
which appealed only to the prurience of women. A view became cemented that
this was a poem which celebrated bigamy and a certain kind of immorality.
This would almost certainly have seemed old-fashioned to the younger
Strauss who was standing at the door waiting to write some of the most
radical operas to open any new century.

If the music and its structure fails what you have left are the performers
and this is where Enoch Arden has been somewhat lucky. As in any
melodrama it is the voice which is going to carry the poem and dating back
to the first recording in 1962 with Claude Rains and Glenn Gould some quite
remarkable narrators have made a recording. Almost without exception the
greatest recordings of Enoch Arden have been made by actors rather
than singers – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose recording followed that of
Rains, Jon Vickers in 1998 (and his debut role as a speaker) and Benjamin
Luxon in 2007 lack the one thing that this part needs: the ability to
dramatize. You really wouldn’t want any of these singers to read a book to
you at bedtime – especially Vickers. Much more interesting are the
recordings by Rains, Gert Westphal, Michael York, Patrick Stewart and this
brand new recording by the late Swiss actor Bruno Ganz.

I’m not sure one would ever have thought of Claude Rains as a particularly
masculine actor, though the mystery he brings to his reading of Arden has
everything to do with an actor who could so clearly have worked wonders in
James Whale’s 1933 film The Invisible Man. Bruno Ganz, on the
other hand, is an entirely different kind of actor. His Arden is a study in
1930s expressionism, but it is also borne out of Goethe’s Faust. This is
probably the deepest, most tragically drawn portrait of Enoch Arden on
disc, and I am not sure you have to be fluent in German to sense that.

But you also feel that Ganz is extremely comfortable here – it recalls his
beautifully rendered work on Abbado’s 1993 recording of Nono’s Il canto sospeso with the Berlin Philharmonic. So much of this
work is sectionalised by Strauss, that it can almost feel like trunks of
text stitched rather badly to chords of piano writing and not much that
joins them together. Vickers rather surprisingly finds himself out on a
limb here, almost as if he has to be prompted by his pianist, the excellent
Marc-AndrÈ Hamelin (though this perhaps is a singer’s typical response).
Rains and Ganz, on the other hand, aren’t phased by these elliptical
dropouts so both their pianists seem to follow them rather than the other
way around.

Kirill Gerstein, like Glenn Gould before him, doesn’t do understatement and
Strauss doesn’t really give this long work any kind of architectural frame
to hold it up; rather, it relies on its pianist to improvise a little to
disguise the work’s technical problems. Both Gould and Gerstein bring
enough style and brilliance to their playing to make any shortcomings the
work may have seem minor, though it would also be true to say with almost
any other actor/narrator than the one each is paired with on their
respective recording the dynamic of the performance would completely
change. This is foremost a work which is about the narrator.

There are now some twenty or so recordings of Strauss’s Enoch Arden, most of which were recorded after the 1990s when the
work really did seem to go through some kind of revival. There are versions
in several languages, including English, German and Italian. No English
language version comes close to the first, the 1962 recording with Claude
Rains and Glenn Gould (Columbia, nla). This most recent version by Bruno
Ganz and Kirill Gerstein is a clear first choice for a German language
recording of Tennyson’s poem but edges out the Rains/Gould for at least two

Firstly, Ganz brings a kind of Herzhog-like depth to his narration which
goes well beyond the narrative itself. This is a reading which is as simple
as the words Ganz is speaking; but it is also an inspired allegory, a map
through theological symbolism, a deep rendering of one man’s elegy and
tragedy. This recording turned out to be Bruno Ganz’s final work but in
that one could now read different interpretations of this performance. For
Kirill Gerstein, his playing lacks none of the intensity that Glenn Gould
brought to his recording almost sixty years ago; what differs, is that
Ganz’s darker German reading of the text allows Gerstein to follow his
narrator into those rather gloomier corridors largely eschewed by others.

Strauss’s Enoch Arden was, in my view, one of those Strauss works
that was shipwrecked over a century ago and has yet to be properly rescued.
This Ganz/Gerstein recording is the closest – and might be the closest – we
get to rescuing this long-marooned work. Just not yet, though. Just not

product_title=Richard Strauss: Enoch Arden Op.38
product_by=Bruno Ganz (narrator), Kirill Gerstein (piano)
product_id=Myrios Classics MYR025 [CD]