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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854–1921)
Hänsel and Gretel - opera in three acts (1893)
Brigette Fassbaender (soprano) – Hänsel; Lucia Popp (soprano) – Gretel; Walter Berry (bass) – Father, Broom-maker; Julia Hamari (contralto) – Mother; Anny Schlemm (mezzo) – Witch; Norma Burrowes (soprano) – Sandman; Edita Gruberova (soprano) – Dew Fairy;
Vienna Boys’ Choir - Wiener Sangerknaben (gingerbread children)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Georg Solti
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, February, March, June 1978. ADD
DECCA CLASSICS OPERA SERIES 478 0143 [63:39 + 44.03]
Experience Classicsonline

There are a number of CD sets of this popular opera, the earliest being this 1978 Solti mid-price re-release. Then we have Pritchard with Von Stade and Te Kanawa (also 1978), Runnicles with Larmore, Behrens and Ziesak (1994), and Mackerras with Larmore, Evans, Plowright, Hayward (2007). Solti conducts a later performance with a similar cast including Prey, in 1981: on Deutsche Grammophon DVD. Perhaps an analysis of a few shortcomings of this set brought about the decision to make an improved later recording with Solti. The Prelude is after all rather lethargic and exposes some insecurities in the playing. It would have benefited from a faster pace. In the gathering momentum of the opening, the horns are not always together and this is noticeable again later in Act I. Despite good strings and gripping crescendos there is a lost opportunity to make the most of Humperdinck’s lovely score in this Vorspiel. Again, the Pantomime finale of Act I starts well, but inappropriately slows to a lifeless and pedantic tempo with a lack of emotional ebb and flow in the swirling ‘hymn-like’ theme.

Much better is the warmth and vitality conveyed in Act I’s atmospheric opening to the Alpine scene with its haunting, echoed dialogue between horn and woodwind. Strong energy and drive distinguishes the duet of Hänsel and Gretel, ‘Suse, liebe Suse, was raschelt im Stroh?. In places, Solti hides unintended legato and accentuates choppy rhythms likely to appeal to the young ears for whom the music was presumably intended by the composer. The ‘Cuckoo’ number, ‘Ein Männlein steht im Walde’, with its multiplex of echoes by different orchestral sections is very effectively handled. Having detected a peppering of Wagnerian style phrases and orchestration, particularly in the cello accompaniment to ‘Mir ist so wohl, ich weiß nicht wie!’, I notice that Humperdinck helped Wagner mount Parsifal’s Bayreuth opening in 1881. So perhaps a similarity is to be expected in the rich scoring of Act II. I expected more colour from the score when the ‘Hokus Pokus’ spell is cast on the children. The 20 minute Act II and the bulk of the 40 minute Act III written in Adelheid Wette’s libretto provides continual interaction between two, then three soprano voices: Hänsel, Gretel and the Witch. This clearly limits the composer in writing a rich score of vocal colour for most of these Acts. The Gingerbread children fleetingly appear in Act III and give a much needed lift to the finale.

This set has a strong cast of principals who need no introduction. The director and producer have a dilemma as to whether the singing of the young innocents, Hänsel and Gretel, should be carried out by experienced professionals or fresh, less mature voices. Despite the enormity of these roles, trebles would have been more appropriate for characters barely in their teens: it would not have been too difficult to find competent songsters to fill the roles, especially when the Vienna Boys’ Choir sing in this recording. Brigitte Fassbaender’s Hänsel and Lucia Popp’s Gretel are sung with passion and they delight with their breezy uplifting legato; yet a mature vibrato hides their intended juvenility. I find Edita Gruberova’s Dew Fairy rather brittle at her register’s top notes, yet her control of diminuendos is excellent. Anny Schlemm’s Witch is effectively twisted and cackly though she seems occasionally and presumably unintentionally to drop at the end of notes. Walter Berry provides a rich and resonant bass while Norma Burrows lulla-balletic Sandman sings magnificently in this minor part.

The recording is excellently balanced yet there is a treble drop on the gingerbread children’s chorus giving them a mellow tone that masks their youthful harmonics.

The generous 98 page booklet is disappointing. Although it gives a good synopsis and full libretto in German, French and English, it omits important and interesting facts: not even Humperdinck’s christian name or dates are mentioned anywhere: neither are we told where the production first originated or when. The pages of Adelheid Wette’s libretto might have been better filled by use of larger type or freeing space for background notes on the composer or our distinguished cast. That said one notices that this is a mid-price set and at least all the essentials are present.

Raymond J Walker


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