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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hänsel und Gretel - A fairy opera in three acts (1890-93)
libretto by Adelheide Wette
Hänsel: Frederica von Stade (mezzo)
Gretel: Ileana Cotrubaş (soprano)

Mother: Christa Ludwig (mezzo)
Father: Siegmund Nimsgern (baritone)
The Sandman: Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano)
The Dew Fairy: Ruth Welting (soprano)
The Witch: Elisabeth Söderström (soprano)
Children’s chorus of the Cologne Opera
Gürzenich Orchestra/John Pritchard
rec. 1978, Erholungshaus, Leverkusen, Germany. ADD.
CD 2 contains a PDF file with the libretto in German, English, French and Italian.
SONY CLASSICAL S2K 96455 [61.22 + 46.20]

This classic set wears its age with amazing grace and dignity. Although there have been subsequent recordings of Humperdinck’s evergreen opera few have captured the work as successfully as Pritchard and company do here.

From the first Pritchard paces the work with care and obvious affection for the music. His efforts are responded to with charmingly unforced playing from the Gürzenich Orchestra, though they also bring a knowing incisiveness to interpreting the musical idiom. In the overture, perhaps more than elsewhere, one becomes aware of the close influence of Wagner’s orchestral idiom upon Humperdinck, though the Witch also carries some inference of this. The significance of the Wagner influence does not escape Pritchard’s keen ear, and through incorporating it he adds depth to this Feenoper - no Wagnerian pun intended. The recorded sound has a slight bloom to it in the brass and strings particularly and this heightens the Wagnerian sensation, whilst Humperdinck is also his own man too.

The undoubted strengths of the set continue when it comes to the voices too. Were I to think of two singers active in the late 1970s to assume the title roles, the pairing of von Stade and Cotrubaş would be hard to beat. Individually and in their extensive passages together they succeed in bringing a sense of wide-eyed wonder to their roles. In terms of vocal size and timbre they fit each other ideally, with von Stade sounding convincingly boyish too. In contrast, the opera’s other pair, Mother and Father, make their presence felt through more mature - and conventionally operatic sounding - use of their voices. Christa Ludwig one can imagine in the role of mother, and Siegmund Nimsgern provides an apt foil to her slightly blowsy assumption of the role.

The four singers so far considered bring style and intelligence to their roles, but were one to look for sheer beauty of singing - whilst not foregoing any of the aforementioned style and intelligence - then the contributions of Kiri Te Kanawa and Ruth Welting would surely be prime for your attention. For me Ruth Welting’s well nigh matchless Dew Fairy would almost be enough reason in itself to consider the set.

But then there’s the wicked witch. Elisabeth Söderström, ever one to assume a character role with gusto in her own inimitable style, doesn’t hold back and really goes for it. I’d steer clear of gingerbread houses if I were you, children.

It’s a shame to be even slightly curmudgeonly when there’s such fun to be had, but I found the documentation (track listing and synopsis) to be serviceable, though I almost missed the thin booklet tucked in between the card of the case’s front flap. The biggest drawback for some might be the PDF file of the libretto on CD 2, which can be accessed via your PC or Mac’s CD-ROM drive. The presentation means that one can only view and print off the original text and the three full translations simultaneously, all of which run to 52 printed pages. Surely giving users a choice of available translations from a menu to begin with would be more user-friendly and economical with paper too. In an age when record companies make the consumer shoulder the printing of support material such concerns have to be considered.

When it comes to the music however, this is a set without a weak link and it provides continual pleasure.

Evan Dickerson



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