Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Königskinder (1910) [156:00]
Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor) – King’s Son
Juliane Banse (soprano) – Goose-Girl
Christian Gerhaher (baritone) – Fiddler
Gabriele Schnaut (mezzo) – Witch
Andreas Hörl (bass-baritone) – Woodcutter
Stephan Rügamer (tenor) – Broom-Maker
Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berliner Mädchenchor
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Ingo Metzmacher
rec. live, Philharmonie, Berlin, December 2008
CRYSTAL CLASSICS N67044 [3 CDs: 59:36 + 37:52 + 58:32]

To call Königskinder Humperdinck’s other opera would be unfair – he wrote fourteen in total – but if you’ve heard of two Humperdinck operas it’s fair to say that, after the perennially popular Hansel and Gretel, this will be the other one. Premiered to great acclaim at the New York Met in 1910 it was an outstanding success, but it never caught on in Germany the way Hansel did and it fell out of favour fairly rapidly – there is only one studio recording which, as far as I can see, is currently unavailable. That’s a shame as, while the work undoubtedly has problems, it has a lot going for it and is a far more ambitious work than Hansel. Humperdinck was famous in his lifetime as a disciple of Wagner – he assisted at the premiere of Parsifal – and this work contains many more Wagnerian aspects than even Hansel, both in terms of plot and music. There are two intensely Wagnerian love duets, including a closing Liebestod. The second act contains crowd scenes worthy of Meistersinger, and there is a wonderfully intense orchestral prelude to the third act where Humperdinck demonstrates his mastery of many of the techniques demonstrated by Wagner. There are also some special moments where he seems to surpass some of his own triumphs in Hansel, such as a poignant children’s chorus in the third act, an awesome climax as the town gates are opened in Act 2 and, perhaps most strikingly, the Goose-Girl’s prayer in Act 1 which is entirely unlike the children’s prayer in Act 2 of Hansel, motivated by feelings and dangers which are far more grown-up. That said, there are good reasons why it has fallen from the repertoire: it moves very slowly and, in places, without much effect. Furthermore, key characters like the Witch tend to disappear for no good reason and the wanderings of the central pair are never fully explained. However, it’s definitely worth exploring, especially if you get a performance of such high quality as this one.

This was a concert performance recorded by German Radio over two nights in December 2008 and only just released. As with many radio recordings, it isn’t hard to hear the audience coughing or the characters walking across the stage, but these extraneous noises are slight and they shouldn’t bother any but the most picky listeners. The first thing that strikes you is the surging orchestral playing of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the direction of Ingo Metzmacher which rings with assurance at every turn. This is clearly a work he believes in and his conviction affects everyone who takes part in this recording. The playing of the orchestra is first rate. They never dismiss this music as trivial or childish: instead they treat it with seriousness and give it as fine an outing as any you could expect to hear. In particular, they inhabit the distinctive sound world of each act in a way that points up the uniqueness of each scene, and indeed demonstrates an entirely different colour for each. The effect, then, is to inhabit the fairy-tale world with sincerity while drawing our attention to the fact that this is also a work with adult themes whose resonances (the power of love, its relevance in the modern world, the innocence of children against the cynicism of adults) affect even our modern world.

The singing is also excellent because it treats the music with the same conviction and sincerity. As the King’s Son Klaus Florian Vogt sings with passion and ardour but, importantly, his voice always has a quality of innocence and youthfulness to it, essential for this character who observes the adult world but never participates in it, retaining his innocence and naivety to the end. Equally importantly, his voice has a golden hue to it that suits this German Romantic world to perfection. Juliane Banse’s Goose-Girl is never so innocent, clearly sounding like a mature adult, but she sings beautifully. Her Act 1 prayer and her death in Act 3 are especially marvellous. Gabriele Schnaut is a rather shrill witch, sounding older than she is, but certainly acting the part convincingly. The Woodcutter and the Broom-maker both sing well too, and the various minor parts in the second act are well taken too. However, the real knockout singer is the Fiddler of Christian Gerhaher, one of our greatest contemporary vocal actors. The Fiddler is the character in the opera who goes on the greatest emotional and psychological journey, from joyful ebullience in the first act to disillusioned sorrow in the last, and Gerhaher inhabits every aspect of this journey in a manner that is utterly compelling. His merry folk tunes sound like something fresh out of Schubert in the first act, but his final act monologues are almost unbearably poignant. For his contribution alone this set would be worth obtaining.

So while Königskinder might not be an under-rated masterpiece, it’s a good place to turn if you like the fairy-tale world of Hansel and Gretel, and a recording as good as this one is a perfect introduction. My only complaint is the documentation: the booklet essay is interesting and we are given the German text but there are no translations, which I can’t help but feel will put many listeners off. You’ll need to look elsewhere if you want to follow every word.

Simon Thompson

While not an under-rated masterpiece it’s a good place to turn if you like Hansel and Gretel, and a recording as good as this one is a perfect introduction.