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Recitation Settings for Possart a la Strauss

R. Strauss: Enoch Arden; The Castle By the Sea Christopher Kent, narrator. Gamal Khamis, piano. SOMM Recordings 0651 Total Time: 69:45 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****

At first glance, the casual listener may think they have overlooked some unusual Strauss tone poem. However, this new release collects two of these rather unusual works by Richard Strauss for narrator and piano. Here are works that use poetry with a piano accompaniment that enhances the texts and is a blend of incidental music with what one might also hear as an almost early film music-like approach to underscoring the texts here.

Strauss wrote these pieces for the noted actor/director Ernst von Possart (1841-1921). It was Possart that had helped Strauss get the job as chief conductor of the Munich Court Orchestra in 1896. As a sort of thank you, Strauss decided to set Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epic poem Enoch Arden—first published in 1864. Of course, Strauss’ setting (Op. 38, TrV181) was from a German translation by Adolf Strodtmann. The narrator here, Christopher Kent, has returned to Tennyson’s English original which makes this album more accessible and also required some work to reinsert what segments went where. Strauss intended this to highlight Possart’s ability of dramatic recitation and so that is what is the result of this work which was premiered in 1897 (the period of the composer’s work on Don Quixote). The music employs some leitmotif connections to the characters as well as dramatic harmonic shifts to comment upon the poetry.

Receiving its premiere recording here is another work Strauss composed for Possart, The Castle By the Sea, TrV191. The poem is by Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862) and comes out of that poet’s fascination with medieval literature. The setting here is in a translation by Kent. The five-minute work provides a nice little encore of a Strauss rarity.

Khamis is given some opportunity to add extra emotional shape to the music here which often feels more like music for the stage, or vaudeville. But it is touchingly performed and helps add the right atmosphere. Most of the time it is used to set up part of a poetic recitation, not too often actually accompanying what is going on. Kent’s recitation is quite engaging and is sort of like one might expect if listening to an audiobook. In a sense, that is what these two pieces are from a time before such things were imagined. The oddity is that they were not set as song cycles.

The sound here is quite good with Khamis receiving a warm acoustic for his performance and Kent being placed well into the soundpicture. While complete texts are included here, his narration is such that it is not necessary to have them in hand as it is quite clear. This is a real curiosity of rather unusual music that is a glimpse of dramatic underwriting that would morph into film scoring in the next century. Recommended for Strauss completists and those interested in a compelling reading of the Tennyson.


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