So soon after the Avie
Hänsel und Gretel came along
), here is a reminder of the magnificent
von Karajan version, with a cast to
die for and playing from the Philharmonia
that will make you melt.
If that’s not all,
Mark Obert-Thorn has done a sterling
job in his capacity as Producer and
Audio Restoration Engineer. Naxos also
throw in a generous twenty or so minutes
of comparative excerpts, a fascinating
mix of talents (more below) from the
HMV, Fonotipia and Odeon catalogues.
A third Elisabeth, as if two were not
enough, contributes (Elisabeth Schumann).
To the opera complete,
first of all. Many might already own
incarnation and, if so, it is not
absolutely necessary to add this to
your shelves. If you do feel the need,
you will, of course, be able to use
the libretto supplied by HMV. No matter
how good the synopses from Naxos are,
they don’t form any sort of substitute
for following the text, especially in
this opera where there are many delightful
Heard in German it
just sounds right, no matter how careful
Avie’s translation is. Of course this
year is the 150th anniversary
of Humperdinck’s birth so the freeing
of this classic recording (for such
it is) from copyright is indeed timely
Take the Overture,
with its horns not only beautifully
balanced but also clarifying the interplay
of lines in a way denied to Avie’s forces,
or the later meltingly beautiful, stunningly
played woodwind. Everything, from every
member, is so on the ball. Karajan
times the rallentandos towards the end
to perfection. In fact his handling
of the score throughout is preternaturally
well managed, with the Philharmonia
obeying his every whim. Karajan paved
the path for his interpretation by pointing
out the deeper levels in the score.
Yet in the Dance Duet (CD1 track 3)
he conspires with Schwarzkopf in particular
to create the atmosphere of a real German
The cast is ideal.
This type of music suits Schwarzkopf
to a tee. Her clarity of tone and expression,
coupled with her diction, is perfect
for the role of Gretel. Her opposite
number, her Hänsel, is Elisabeth
Grümmer, in fine fettle here
The darkening of the
atmosphere for Act 1 Scene 2 (CD1 track
4) is a triumph for both Karajan and
the mother, Hungarian contralto Maria
von Ilosvay, whose creamy voice is laced
with sadness and regret. This comes
in stark contrast to the previous folkloristic
antics. Her husband is baritone Josef
Metternich, as lusty and full-voiced
as they come at his entrance. Ilosvay’s
replies are perfectly placed.
On a production level,
the gap between Acts 1 and 2 seems far
too short - around two seconds. Yet
all is forgotten with Karajan’s stomping
Witches Ride (Hexenritt), not to mention
the gorgeously lullaby-like beginning
of Scene 1 of Act 2 (CD1 track 9) and
his ensuing clouding of mood as the
mist rises in the forest. Yet Scene
2 is surely the highlight, with Anny
Felbermayer’s ultra-sweet Sandman and
culminating in the hushed Evening Prayer.
It is Karajan who weaves the spell here
though, with Grümmer and Schwarzkopf’s
voices spinning soft, glorious lines
over the orchestra. It is a moment -
three, to be accurate - where time stops.
And so it should. The Dream Pantomime
that follows is simply magnificent,
with glowing wind and brass at the climax.
as a delightful Dew-Fairy to greet Act
Three ... and what a miracle Karajan
makes of the prelude, shaping each phrase,
breathing with it! Enter the only other
character not discussed so far: the
Witch, played here by Else Schürhoff.
Schürhoff sings with great character
- she was a very experienced artist.
Her spell is superb, her laugh the very
incarnation of witchery.
Karajan moulds the
final stages of the opera with the hand
of a Master, even imbuing the Philharmonia
with echt-Austrian lilt (CD 2 track
10, from around thirty seconds in especially).
The final stages (Act 3 Scene 4 onwards)
are gentle and full of human warmth.
Things get really interesting
with the fillers. The mere presence
of Conchita Supervía will for
many, myself included, be recommendation
enough, and indeed, in partnership with
Ines Maria Ferraris, the two tracks
are spell-binding. This is very witty
Humperdinck, perhaps wearing itself
lighter than with Karajan. Hüsch’s
Besenbinderlied from Act 1 (‘Ral la
la la …’) is perhaps not as dramatically
convincing as with Metternich. The real
joy comes with the ‘third Elisabeth’
- Schumann, accompanied by piano - and
some sort of bird-whistle … or is that
someone really whistling? Not Schumann,
surely? She is cleverly multi-tracked
at the end to duet with herself.
Schumann’s voice is
loveliness in sound, conveying just
the right amount of innocence.
I am not so sure about
the orchestral arrangement of ‘Hurr
hopp’, which sounds like cartoon music
(Berlin State Opera Orchestra), but
there is a joyous swing to the Witch
Waltz under Weissmann (with Seinemeyer
and Helen Jung doing the vocal honours).
Shame it peters out rather, as this
set as a whole is surely one of the
real jewels in Naxos’s crown.
And don’t just play
it at Christmas, either!
I just wanted to respond
to two issues raised in Colin Clarke's
review of my transfer of the Schwarzkopf/Karajan
"Hansel". First, the very
short space between Acts I and II is
just as it was in the middle of Side
2 of the original LPs, so apparently
Legge and Karajan intended the music
to be presented virtually without pause.
Second, the whistling heard during the
Elisabeth Schumann "Hansel"
excerpts was indeed performed by Schumann
herself. Her whistling talents can also
be heard on several of her operetta