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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hänsel und Gretel [106’40"]
Hänsel: Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano)
Gretel: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Peter: Josef Metternich (baritone)
Getrud: Maria von Ilosvay (soprano)
The Witch: Else Schürhoff (contralto)
The Sandman: Amy Felbermayer (soprano)
The Dew Fairy: Amy Felbermayer (soprano)
Loughton High School for Girls Choir; Bancroft’s School Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Recorded 27, 29, 30 June, 1, 2 July, 1953, Kingsway Hall, London
Appendix: Highlights from Hänsel und Gretel. Historical Recordings 1928-1937
Suse, liebe Suse, was raschelt im Stroh [3’14"]
Brüderchen, komm tanz’ mit mir (Dance Duet) [3’48"]
Both sung in Italian
Conchita Supervia (mezzo); Ines Maria Ferraris (soprano)
Orchestra/A. Albergoni.
Recorded in 1928 in Milan
Ral la la la….heissa Mutter, ich bin da! (Besenbinderlied) [4’27"]
Gerhard Hüsch (baritone) with unidentified soprano.
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Hanns Udo Müller
Recorded January 1937 in Berlin
Ein Männlein steht im Walde {1’10"]
Der kleine Sandmann bin ich, st! [2’24"]
Abends, will ich schlefen gehn* (Evening Prayer) [1’57"]
Elisabeth Schumann (soprano) *both voices; Ernest Lush (piano).
Recorded 28 August 1935 in Abbey Road Studio No.3, London
Hurr hopp hopp hopp (arranged for orchestra) [1’25"]
Juchhei! Nun ist die Hese tot (Witch Waltz) [2’19"]
Meta Seinemeyer (soprano); Helen Jung (mezzo)
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Frieder Weissmann.
Recorded 15 February 1929 in Berlin
NAXOS 8.110897-98 [62’45" + 64’36"]


It came as something of a shock to realise that the final sessions for what is now apparently regarded as an historical recording of Humperdinck’s opera took place on my first birthday! In what is probably a vain attempt to hold the years at bay may I be allowed to refer to this EMI recording as a classic recording and avoid the use of "historical"?

My colleagues Ian Lace and Colin Clarke, Colin Clarke and Jonathan Woolf have already warmly welcomed this Naxos release. As Colin points out, the Naxos issue lacks the libretto and translation that EMI provides in their Great Recordings of the Century version of the same recording but the Naxos version is cheaper and includes the valuable appendix of some earlier recorded extracts.

I was intrigued to learn from Malcolm Walker’s valuable liner note that prior to this recording Karajan had never conducted this score. You certainly would not know that from the way he casts a spell over the proceedings. Or perhaps you would, for the mastery here is combined with freshness. There is no sense of a conductor taking into the studio a piece with which he is so familiar that it has grown stale in any way. From the very start of the overture you sense that this performance is going to be something special. The orchestral sound glows, starting with the burnished tone of the horns. The strings are rich and the woodwind playing is characterful and beautiful. The overture really is a microcosm of all the orchestral delights that await us in the rest of this account of the opera. As Malcolm Walker aptly puts it "from the opening bars to the conclusion, [Karajan] and the Philharmonia orchestra constantly ravish the ear with finely balanced orchestral playing."

Some might aver that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is too mature and sophisticated a singer to sound convincing as a child. There are moments when I feel she comes close to crossing this line but these are few and far between and for me her gorgeous tone and clear diction are the key attributes upon which to focus. At the start of the celebrated dance with Hänsel in Act I, scene 1 (CD 1, track 3) she imparts an irresistible perkiness to the rhythms without ever sacrificing vocal purity or a sense of line. Great admirer of hers that I am, I must admit that she did come to sound a bit too calculated and ‘knowing’ at times later in her career but such is not the case here.

The engaging Elisabeth Grümmer is the perfect foil and partner for Schwarzkopf. She too sings with wondrous ease. Like her colleague she also displays a consummate understanding of the text as well as of the music that must have delighted that arch-perfectionist, Walter Legge who had chosen her for the role, I believe.

Maria von Ilosvay is a splendid choice as the Mother. At her first appearance (CD 1, track 4) there’s real pathos and sadness in her voice but it’s never overdone. As her husband, Josef Metternich engages our attention from his very first phrase. He conjures up an aural picture of rustic sturdiness but his splendidly full tone is entirely devoid of caricature. Throughout Act I, scene 3, he and von Ilosvay make a marvellous, characterful pairing.

Moving forward to Act II, scene 1 we encounter the next principal singer. Amy Felbermayer is a seraphic, reassuring Sandman. She sings beautifully over a hushed, rapt accompaniment. It is at this point, and throughout this scene, that what has hitherto been a wonderful performance attains a miraculous, exalted level. The Evening Prayer is truly moving. The listener is conscious only of a spellbinding simplicity but what consummate technique was required from Grümmer, Schwarzkopf, Karajan and the orchestral players to obtain and sustain such gossamer lightness. The Dream Pantomime, which follows is, as Colin Clarke says, "simply magnificent". Has there ever been an orchestra to match the 1950s Philharmonia when it was playing like this? I don’t honestly believe that, for all his famed insistence on super refinement in his later years, Karajan could ever have surpassed his achievement in eliciting playing of such sensitivity and refinement from an orchestra, not even when his partnership with the Berlin Philharmonic was at its zenith. Incidentally, though the Naxos transfer is excellent, the recording actually overloaded slightly at this point on the equipment (not my own) that I used to hear these discs, so fabulously rich is the string bass foundation. That’s emphatically not a criticism of either the original HMV engineers or of Mark Obert-Thorn, who made this transfer.

There’s another delightful cameo from Amy Felbermayer, this time as the Dew Fairy, in Act III, scene 1. In scene 3 we encounter the Witch of Else Schürhoff. She’s marvellously insinuating and insidious, sinister cackles and all. The whole scene with the children is splendidly done and Schürhoff’s casting of the spell is the epitome of nastiness. She’s just sufficiently over the top in the role without ever descending to caricature. There’s exultation in the Witch Waltz, the Philharmonia playing with the same panache that they were to bring some three years later to the celebrated recording of Der Rosenkavalier with Karajan. The very end of the opera is a radiant, happy affair, as Colin Clarke says it’s "gentle and full of human warmth".

There’s a timeless magic to this opera and to this recording, which is a true classic of the gramophone. The recording is now just over fifty years old but I see no reason why music lovers should still not be enjoying it and, indeed, marvelling at it fifty years hence. This is an indispensable benchmark recording, a real testament to the skills of all the musicians involved and to that discriminating musical Svengali, Walter Legge.

The second CD also contains some twenty minutes or so of very interesting historical snippets from the earlier recorded history of the work. I’m afraid I can’t quite share my colleagues’ enthusiasm for Conchita Supervia on this occasion. To my ears (and I’m sure I’m in a minority here, possibly a minority of one) I find the voice, as recorded here, has too harsh an edge. Also, hearing the words sung in Italian is a distinctly odd experience. In his excerpt Gerhard Hüsch produces his voice with a lovely even, round tone, as was his wont. It’s a wonderful sound but I agree with Colin Clarke that Metternich fills out the character more convincingly. However, the excerpts featuring Elisabeth Schumann are in an entirely different league. She’s utterly beguiling, whistling and all, in ‘Ein Männlein steht im Walde’ (CD 2, track 16). The Evening Prayer, in which she duets with herself, is just lovely, even if she doesn’t attempt the withdrawn innigkeit achieved by Grümmer and Schwarzkopf. Even so, Schumann compels our attention through the sheer unaffected loveliness of her artistry.

Mark Obert-Thorn has done a superb job in transferring the recordings. The complete opera sounds as if it were made if not yesterday then only a few years ago. The sound is lovely, clear and atmospheric. I’m sure, however, that Mr Obert-Thorn would be the first to share the credit for this not only with the original HMV engineers but also with the unsung hero of this recording, London’s Kingsway Hall. The earlier recordings have also come up extremely well. There is a very good introductory note by Malcolm Walker and though there’s no libretto there’s a clear and helpful track-by-track synopsis by Keith Anderson.

This is an unmissable bargain, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

John Quinn

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