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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854–1921)
Hansel and Gretel (1893) (Sung in English)
Jennifer Larmore (mezzo) – Hansel; Rebecca Evans (soprano) – Gretel, his sister; Rosalind Plowright (mezzo) – Gertrude, their Mother; Robert Hayward (baritone) – Peter, their Father; Jane Henschel (mezzo) – The Witch; Sarah Tynan (soprano) – The Dew Fairy; Diana Montague (mezzo) – The Sandman; Sarah Coppen – The Cuckoo; New London Children’s Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. Blackheath Halls, London, 22–27 November 2006
CHANDOS CHAN 3143 [58:49 + 42:19]


Based on the well-known fairy-tale by the Brothers Grimm Humperdinck’s opera was an instant success when it was premiered in Weimar just before Christmas 1893. Within a year it had been performed by at least seventy-two theatres and it has remained in the standard repertoire in many opera houses. It is also well represented in the record catalogues since Karajan’s 1953 recording with Elisabeth Grümmer and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the two children.

George Hall in his liner-notes poses the question: is it an opera for children or an opera for adults? The answer, of course, is that it’s for both. Besides the story, both melodramatic, frightening and burlesque, the lively rhythms and the catchy folk-like melodies naturally appeal to children. I remember from my earliest school years that in our songbook we had the dancing duet Brüderchen, komm, tanz’ mit mir; in David Pountney’s English version, used on this recording, it is Little brother dance with me. There are many more songs and instrumental pieces that stick after hearing them once or twice. It could be argued that the Wagner-influenced orchestra with its lush harmonies and complexities would be a too hard a nut to crack for the young ones. Although some passages seem closer to Die Meistersinger than fairy-tale, the next minute there is hilarious earthbound dancing and stamping that should carry away anyone with a sense of joy.

With the ever-reliable and inspirational Sir Charles Mackerras at the helm and the Philharmonia Orchestra in ebullient mood, this new version has a lot to recommend it from the start. The French horns at the opening of the overture paint an atmospheric picture of Romantic German nature. When Humperdinck wants to illustrate rural happiness in dancing rhythms, Mackerras and the Philharmonia oblige with jolly and alive conducting and playing. It is interesting to note a motif applied to the Witches, which is quite similar to the Giants’ theme in Wagner’s Ring. On the other hand the Witches’ Ride has little in common with The Ride of the Walküre. I have made a few comparisons with my preferred versions of this opera, both stemming from the 1970s: John Pritchard on CBS (later Sony) and Georg Solti on Decca. The former, recorded in Cologne, is beautiful and has a marvellous cast but seems too laid-back; the last ounce of drama is missing. Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic on top form, never misses an opportunity to stress a dramatic point but his reading is broader and in the final analysis too pompous. It is as if Wagner was standing just behind him in the Sofiensaal, whereas in Blackheath Halls he was seated at a fair distance – just listening. Without having gone into any depth in my comparisons I feel that Mackerras has found a good middle course, without being blandly middle-of-the-road.

He has a fine cast, but so have the other two. Pritchard’s children are sung by Frederica von Stade and Ileana Cotrubas and both are lovely – and well contrasted; Solti has Brigitte Fassbaender’s highly individual Hansel and her dark tones are easy to separate from the glittering Lucia Popp. Jennifer Larmore, who has recorded Hansel before with Donald Runnicles, and Rebecca Evans at first seemed different too with Ms Evans scaling down to a girlish tone but in many places her tone is just as fruity and mezzo-ish as Larmore’s. Without following the libretto I had problems deciding who was singing. Both can also be rather vibrant when high in the register up but both are also lively and involved. When singing in unison, as the children do in several places, there is a fine unanimity of vibrato and they blend very well – for example in the duet at the end of act 2.

Rosalind Plowright, today taking on dramatic mezzo-roles, is an intense Mother and expresses both the hysterical and the deeply tragic side of her character. Robert Hayward’s Wotan voice is rather heavy but he makes a lively portrait of the Father and is a fine counterpart to Plowright’s Mother.

In lesser roles Diana Montague is an expressive Sandman and Sarah Tynan’s Dew Fairy is as fresh as the dew she keeps in her bluebell. Even the Cuckoo is credited in the cast list: Sarah Coppen.

The greatest controversy in this opera is often how to create the Witch. When the Pritchard recording was released, Elisabeth Söderström was criticized for distorting her voice too much, to make a caricature instead of a believable portrait. It is a bit over the top, no doubt, but I enjoyed it greatly the first time. I still think she is good but her portrayal may well lose its charm when heard too often. Anny Schlemm for Solti is emphatic and expressive but she also tends to distort the tone. Jane Henschel is certainly a great singer and a great actor – I have seen her both in the concert hall and on the opera stage. She makes a vivid and dramatic Witch that becomes so much more terrifying because she sounds more or less ‘normal’. She sings and acts with the utmost conviction and almost steals the show – and what a terrible shriek when she is being pushed into the oven! I still have goose-pimples!

There are some other realistic sound effects and the recording, as expected from the Couzens team, first class in every respect with wide dynamics. The booklet has numerous session photos and David Pountney’s text is printed. I have compared his version with the German original in only a couple of instances and the two seem to be fairly close but his rhymes are certainly wittier than in the original.

This new version doesn’t necessarily outclass the competition but it is worthy to stand beside my established favourites. Mackerras steers a middle course that makes it an attractive alternative for those who think Pritchard is too lax and Solti too pompous.

Göran Forsling 



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