Wednesday 19 March 2014

My Dearest Hedgehog

Gillian Keith
Gillian Keith
My Dearest Hedgehog: Gillian Keith, Oliver Cotton, Penny Downie, Stephen Barlow: Temple Music
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 18 2014
Star rating: 4.0

The tempestuous marriage of Richard and Pauline Strauss

My Dearest Hedgehog is described by its author, Henrietta Bredin, as a divertissement or entertainment and, though surely diverting and entertaining, the work is far more than that. Using spoken narration and Richard Strauss's songs, Bredin gives us a picture of the tempestuous marriage between Richard and Pauline Strauss. The work was presented in Middle Temple Hall on 18 March 2014 as part of the Temple Music Foundation's 2014 season, with soprano Gillian Keith, narrators Oliver Cotton and Penny Downie, plus Stephen Barlow at the piano. 
Spoken narration, delivered by Oliver Cotton and Penny Downie, was interleaved with Richard Strauss's songs sung by Gillian Keith accompanied by Stephen Barlow. The evening opened with a magical performance of Morgen (written in 1894, the year the Strauss's married) with Keith's sweet-toned lyric soprano combining a fine sense of line with attention to the words, resulting in beautiful but dramatically intent performance.

All of the songs were related to dramatic incidents in the narrative giving the work a nicely organic whole. Cäcilie, which received a vividly impulsive performance from Keith and Barlow, was written by Strauss as a present for Pauline on the eve of their marriage. The charming Meinem Kinde, far more than a simple lullaby, was written for the birth of the Strauss's son Franz. This received a lovely, pitch-perfect performance from Keith. Gluckes genug was rather touching, with its clear narrative and lovely feeling of the abundant happiness of the title. Befreit was the subject of a poignant incident in which a now retired Pauline Strauss recalled the song exactly and sang it through in a strong half voice. The song itself was rather melancholy and complex, and given by Keith and Barlow with nice intensity. The final song, Gefunden was dedicated to Pauline and the text by Goethe could be seen as describing their relationship. Keith brought great narrative charm to the piece, hinting at the complexity that lay beneath its simple narrative.

Richard Strauss said that all his songs were written with Pauline's voice in mind, she was the ideal interpreter of this songs. But she retired in 1906 and we have no record of her voice. However, she had quite a wide repertoire taking in both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira as well as Wagner's jugend-dramatisch roles (Eva and Elsa), but she also sang Isolde to notable and strikingly youthful effect. Whilst I cannot imagine Gillian Keith planning to sing Isolde, her voice combined an admirable lyric sensibility, with a stronger core which made it ideal for these songs in the relatively intimate acoustic of Middle Temple Hall. Stephen Barlow accompanied throughout with sympathy and aplomb.

Fine though these performances were, the strength of the piece as a whole lay in the way the narrative provided background to the songs bringing real emotional and dramatic links between music and the story of the Strauss's marriage. Both Downie and Cotton were highly engaging in their delivery of the narrative. Whilst they did speak Richard and Pauline Strauss's words, this was combined with wry comment and third person narration. Downie and Cotton made their interchanges entertainingly funny as well as being informative, creating a strong interaction. But all was not humour, and Bredin's text nicely dug underneath to reveal the vulnerability that lay beneath Pauline's abrasive manner, and the difficult relationship that Richard had with his parents.

The piece could perhaps take one or two more songs, to alter the balance in favour of Strauss's music a little more. But this was the best sort of entertainment, in which we were both diverted and informed with all the performers helping to reveal the remarkable characters behind Richard Strauss's songs.

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  1. It was a triumph for all, especially the under-recognised author, Henrietta Bredin. I was there and agree that this was the best sort of entertainment, in which we were educated, informed and entertained. Now, what would be a suitable broadcast institution to take this further I wonder?! More please.

    1. I'm still wanting to hear Henrietta's other piece on Gounod and his fascinating relationship with Mrs Weldon, which was premiered last year at the Buxton Festival.

    2. I was there for that also. Extremely memorable, amusing and entertaining. Well worth 'reviving', if that is the right word.


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