MUSIC / A purely Victorian lapse of taste: Nicholas Williams on Richard Strauss's melodrama Enoch Arden at the Almeida Opera Festival

Answering for Strauss's little- known melodrama Enoch Arden is like explaining away the indiscretions of a favourite uncle. Dark secrets have a habit of reappearing; this one surfaced at the second concert of the Almeida Opera Festival in London on Sunday afternoon. Ian McDiarmid read the poem majestically while Yvar Mikhashoff followed the tale from the keyboard with suitable changes of musical mood. Neither, however, could disguise the unspeakable lapse of taste that is the true nature of the crime.

Blame Tennyson if you will. A serious narrative of selfless love, shipwreck and the Protestant work ethic, his poem is full of audacious flights of metre, encapsulating vivid descriptions of tropical climes in 'Lotus Eaters' style, and of nutting in autumnal hazel woods. The text is also pure Victoriana. Some of the audience, probably members of the Strauss or Tennyson Society, sat through it in a state of suppressed emotion suitable for the drawing room. For the rest, it was hard at times to avoid laughter.

Some of it was self-addressed; at those points when the force of Tennyson's rhetoric persuaded you to take the story as seriously as did Strauss. Piano themes for marriage, death and the usual things were juggled around in a way recalling the symphonic poems, not just in the cut of their lines, but in their crude psychological current. Perhaps the lesson was that the composer of Der Rosenkavalier, for once sailing too close to the wind, showed how his greater works depend on a judicious balance of manner and emotion. The secret is the knife-edged subtlety by which they avoid teetering into the grandiose.

For comparison, the evening concert contained a modern melodrama: David Lang's Music for Gracious Living, raising more than a few intentional outbursts of humour. The spoof was a champagne-toting narrator explaining how to give posh, Fifties-style dinner parties. Gawn Grainger was accompanied by minimalist grunts, stutters and impersonations from the Brindisi String Quartet. Given the premise, not much personality came through; but Lang showed plenty of wit and technical command.

The connection with what followed, Earl Kim's Three Poems in French, was unclear. Familiar texts by Verlaine and Baudelaire were cushioned on a tone-bed of the softest, most fragrant harmonic blooms from Chausson and early Debussy. Individual songs were in slow arioso style, sung with grace and commitment by the soprano Sarah Leonard, but of such uniformity that texts could have been interchangeable between the three. A former serialist, Kim, it seems, has now reverted to neo-impressionism.

Hesitant intonation marred the Brindisi's account of Britten's Third Quartet. Yet they have already assembled more than just the bones of a highly individual reading and there was a real sense of dynamic interplay in the first movement's complex duets. In contrast, the fire and energy of Colin Matthews's Second Quartet was unrestrained, clouds of scurrying semiquavers succumbing to ever more swirling, restless nebulae. Matthews's gift is for a kind of suggestion that makes full effects by apparent half-statements. Movements four and five - largo interlude and chorale composed in 1989 to replace the original 1984 second movement - were heavyweights, despite their brief clock-time duration. The finale nicely tailed off in a reprise of the work's initial agitation. As with the Britten, nothing was complete until the last note was over.

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