MUSIC / A purely Victorian lapse of taste: Nicholas Williams on Richard Strauss's melodrama Enoch Arden at the Almeida Opera Festival
Wednesday 07 July 1993
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.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Half of young women unable to ‘locate vagina’ and 65% find it difficult to say the word
- 2 Perez Hilton apologises for Jennifer Lawrence naked photo leak
- 3 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 4 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
- 5 Jennifer Lawrence 'naked sex video' will be leaked threatens 4Chan celebrity photo hacker
Scottish independence referendum: Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai and Frightened Rabbit to play in support of Yes campaign
Unseen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chapter deemed 'too subversive' released
Strictly Come Dancing 2014: Gregg Wallace joins Mark Wright, Pixie Lott and Judy Murray in line-up
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
Al Pacino's The Humbling and Manglehorn, film reviews
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ukip Douglas Carswell defection: Tory MP jumps ship to join Nigel Farage