Though Humperdinck composed a number of operas little besides
Hänsel und Gretel is performed today, even though
Königskinder seems to pop up now and then. Not long
ago I reviewed his Dornröschen. It isn’t a real opera, more a Singspiel with
a lot of spoken dialogue, but there is some beautiful music.
For the ‘real’ Humperdinck one has to go to Hänsel
und Gretel, which has stayed in the repertoire of many opera
houses and not only in the German-speaking countries. Stockholm
Opera mounted it some five years ago and here is the Glyndebourne
production from 2010, which was also presented concertante
at the Proms the same year.
Judging from what I hear on these discs this should have been
a splendid performance, though it seems possible, from the many
colour photos from the production, that a few things could have
been questionable. The Witch, impersonated by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
seems to me a bit over the top. Since it is a CD issue I review
what I hear, and that is in many ways very good indeed.
Let me first have a look at previous versions. In the early
1950s there were two mono recordings, one for DG conducted by
Fritz Lehmann with Rita Streich as Gretel and a Columbia
set under Herbert von Karajan, featuring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Elisabeth
Grümmer. The latter version is widely regarded as one of
the great opera recordings. Among stereo sets Eurodisc (later
RCA) presented the work under the direction of Kurt Eichhorn
with Anna Moffo and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau among the soloists,
East-German VEB recorded a very Wagnerian version under Otmar Suitner back in 1969 with Theo Adam as the Father and
Peter Schreier as possibly the most formidable Witch (review). There was also a very good CBS set (later Sony) under
John Pritchard, with Ileana Cotrubas and Frederica von
Stade as possibly the loveliest children on any version and
with Elisabeth Söderström’s unforgettable Witch.
The drawback is that the conducting is too laid-back; it’s
beautiful but slightly lifeless. Solti (with Popp and Fassbaender) on Decca and Colin Davis (with Gruberova and Ann Murray) on Philips (now Decca)
are also attractive propositions. Finally there’s Charles
Mackerras on Chandos with Jennifer Larmore and Rebecca Evans
as the children. It is sung in English, which probably rules
it out for some readers, but it is so lovingly conducted with
perfectly judged tempos. The singing could hardly be bettered.
Where does Robin Ticciati stand in this field? Maybe not at
pole position but he still has a chance to be a front-runner.
To begin with he has the London Philharmonic in top shape at
his disposal and thus the purely orchestral music sounds marvellous:
the overture, the Witch’s Ride, the Dream Pantomime and
the prelude to act 3. His tempos are very close to Mackerras’s
and that seems to me as close to the ideal as possible. The
recording is excellent, catching some stage noises no doubt,
but seldom sufficient to irritate. The balance between stage
and pit is also well judged. As for the singing, Alice Coote
and Lydia Teuscher are good but a bit anonymous, compared to
Schwarzkopf and Grümmer on the Karajan set or Cotrubas
and von Stade for Pritchard. He also has Christa Ludwig as an
imposing mother but Irmgard Vilsmaier, whom I heard as a good
Isolde some years ago, also gets under the skin of her character.
William Dazeley’s Father is lively but a bit wayward at
times. Here Suitner’s Theo Adam, almost Wotan like, is
hard to beat, unless it be Pritchard’s Siegmund Nimsgern,
darker and more youthful than most. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
is almost in the Schreier division and his laughter is terrifying.
Tara Erraught’s Sandman is delightful while Ida Falk Winland’s
vibrato is a little too prominent for such a morning fresh little
thing as the Dew Fairy.
The final verdict? If a sixty-year-old mono recording is OK
then the Karajan-Schwarzkopf-Grümmer set is still the one
to have. Otherwise my vote goes to the Pritchard set, in spite
of it being a bit underpowered. If an English version is no
problem, Mackerras is a safe choice. Ticciati holds his own
in this company, however, and readers who missed the Glyndebourne
production live will certainly not regret a purchase.