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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hänsel und Gretela (1890-93)
Elisabeth Grümmer (mezzo) Hansel; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) Gretel; Else Schürhoff (mezzo) The Witch; Maria von Ilosvay (mezzo) Mother; Josef Metternich (baritone) Father; Anny Felbermayer (soprano) Sandman, Dew Fairy;
Loughton High School for Girls Choir; Bancroft School Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan.
Hänsel und Gretel extracts: Suse, liebe Suse, was raschelt im Strohb; Brüderchen, komm tanz’ mit mirb (sung in Italian); Ral la la … heissa Mutter, ich bin da! (Besenbinderlied)c; Ein Männlein steht im Walded; Der kleine Sandmann bin ichd; Abends, will ich schlafen gehnd; Hurr hopp hopp hoppe; Juchhei! Nun ist die Hexe tot (Witch Waltz)f.
bConchita Supervía (mezzo); bInes Maria Ferraris, dElisabeth Schumann, fMeta Seinemeyer (sopranos); fHelen Jung (mezzo); cGerhard Hüsch (baritone); borchestra/A. Albergoni; cefBerlin State Opera Orchestra/cHanns Udo Müller, efFrieder Weissmann; dErnest Lush (piano)
Synopsis included. From aColumbia 33CX1096/97, Fonotipia b120166, cHMV EH1024, dDA1439, efOdeon O-7796. . Rec. aKingsway Hall, London, on June 27th, 29th-30th and July 1st-2nd, 1953, bMilan in 1928, Berlin in cJanuary 1937, efFebruary 15th, 1929, dAbbey Road Studio No. 3, London, on August 28th, 1935. ADD
NAXOS GREAT OPERA RECORDINGS 8.110897/8 [127’21: 62’45 + 64’36]

There are now competing versions of this classic 1953 Karajan Hänsel and Gretel. EMI’s has a libretto and the transfer is slightly warmer but against that this Naxos has a sizeable bonus of pre-War material, all of which is collectable and valuable. What’s for sure is that the recording captures some effervescent performances, from the young Philharmonia Orchestra to the stellar cast and the contemporary recording team. The orchestra’s strings layer the Act I introduction with exceptional nuance for example and the legendary wind principals are very much to the fore in Act II’s first scene Ein Männlein steht im Walde. Similarly in the third scene of the same act we can hear the acute placement of the harp in the Dream Pantomime – altogether an effective spatial balance is maintained. Orchestral balance and standards are properly maintained in the third act where the playing behind Juchhei! Nun ist die Hexe tot is splendid. And one shouldn’t omit the exciting and, more to the point, excitingly nuanced Witch’s Ride that serves as the Introduction to the second act. One can also note the children’s choir shining in Scene IV of the final act.

The weight of expectation however will inevitably fall on the principal singers. Famed for their impersonations though they may be, Schwarzkopf and Grümmer still make an alluring pairing as Hänsel and Gretel. True their voices are perhaps heavier than we are used to – Grümmer can sound just a mite heavy in Act I’s Brüderchen, komm tanz’ mit mir – but against that we should note that where we might have expected a degree of over projection (say the Evening Prayer) the two leads display admirable restraint and simplicity despite their necessarily more vibrant vibratos. As the Witch Else Schürhoff unburdens her contralto with its gruff middle voice very much to the fore. And as Peter we have something of an unsung hero of this set, Josef Metternich. His avuncular impersonation, heralded by a typical "off stage" entry is warm and coaxing and deeply attractive. Maria von Ilosvay, as Peter’s wife Gertrud, completes a powerful line up and is the other contralto – warm and appealing – though one should note also that Anny Felbermayer takes the small roles of The Sandman and The Dew Fairy.

The fill-ups are about twenty minutes or so of extracts from the 1920s and 30s. Enterprisingly we have the Supervía-Ines Maria Ferraris 1928 Fonotipia of Suse, liebe Suse and the Dance Duet (sung in Italian). The first has real charm – capitulation is inevitable I think – and the second is flightiness personified. The Hüsch extract derives from a Berlin session of 1937 and reveals the baritone to be an unexpectedly fine Humperdinck singer. The Schumann sides feature some early examples of double tracking; she takes both roles in the Evening Prayer; maybe as a result she’s rather quicker than she might have been with a real partner beside her but the tonal purity is matchless and contrasts with the level of sophistication shown by Schwarzkopf and Grümmer in their recording especially with regard to dynamic variance. We also have a rather negligible orchestral arrangement but end on a high with a strong meat duo of Seinemeyer and Helen Jung in a 1929 Berlin Juchhei! Nun ist die Hexe tot presided over by the ever reliable house conductor Frieder Weissmann.

So one classic 1953 recording augmented by some pre-War jewels; if I slightly prefer EMI’s recording quality I wouldn’t happily forego the pleasure of those fill-ups – it’s the kind of thing that might tip the balance.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Colin Clarke

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