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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hänsel und Gretel (1893) [98:22]
Hänsel - Sayaka Shigeshima (mezzo)
Gretel - Elisabeth Wimmer (soprano)
Peter, the broom maker - Uwe Schenker-Primus (baritone)
Gertrud his wife - Rebecca Teem (mezzo)
The Witch - Alexander Günther (tenor)
The Sandman - Caterina Maier (soprano)
The Dew Fairy - Hyunjin Park (soprano)
Schola Cantorum Weimar, Ladies of the Opera Chorus of the National Theatre Weimar.
Staatskapelle Weimar/Martin Hoff
rec. no venue given, 2-4, 5, 10-12 September 2013

The Staatskapelle Weimar has an extraordinary performing tradition. It is one of the oldest orchestras in the world having been founded in 1491. For many years its history and quality lay hidden behind the Iron Curtain. The last quarter century has seen the balance redressed but even now outside Germany the quality of the orchestra and indeed the whole institution of music in Weimar strikes me as under-appreciated in the wider world. In the late 19th century it was responsible for a series of premieres including Strauss' Guntram, Wagner's Lohengrin and the opera presented here; Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel. The premiere at Christmas in 1893 was meant to be a prestigious triple-theatre event simultaneously at Munich, Karlsruhe and Weimar. Sickness and injury elsewhere meant that by the time Richard Strauss conducted the Weimar premiere on 23 December it was the only performance. It has stayed in the Opera house's repertoire ever since.

In the best sense of the phrase this is a genuine "house" production. There are no star names in the cast - all are members of the opera company and it is conducted by Martin Hoff, the first staff conductor of the House. This is a performance very much at ease with itself and not trying to impose any outsize personalities on either piece or performance. In this sense it is very much the antithesis - one might almost say antidote - to famously spectacular recordings such as Solti's Decca recording in Vienna with a stellar cast and sound effects aplenty. Karajan's famous EMI mono recording with the Philharmonia and Schwarzkopf has stood the test of time in every respect while I have a fondness for the 1971 Kurt Eichhorn recording on RCA. Not the subtlest recording or performance but possibly the most extraordinary cast of all; Fischer-Dieskau, Ludwig, Donath, Moffo, Auger, Popp is a line-up that could only be dreamt of today. That said, this Weimar recording makes a positive virtue out of the ensemble nature of the work with the music being served rather than the personalities of the performers.

The MDG recording is very good too in an unfussy naturalistic way with a good balance between voices and orchestra. There are few attempts at aural staging - the father enters from the distance and the enchanted children sing in an atmospherically disembodied acoustic. My one concern is that for all the clarity of the orchestral textures the ensemble sound is bass-light in a way that the orchestra - both on disc and in the concert hall do not sound. The great glory of the Weimar orchestra is the weighty bass-led sonority they create - rich and dark. Here, it is still a thing of great beauty - the horns are a particular glory - just not as characterful as I know they are. When I first listened to the famous Act I Prelude I had some concerns about the under-characterisation verging on plainness of Martin Hoff's interpretation. In the context of the whole work his is a very consistent view - the opera emerges as a gentler, possibly more touching work - the Evening Prayer and the children awakening from their spell are both magically presented. With the latter the singing of the Schola Cantorum Weimar is touchingly simple in contrast to the Wiener Sängerknaben for Solti who have an unmistakeable but rather less natural sound - Eichhorn has the Tölz Boys' Choir and I like them too. Hoff's is the best combination of simplicity of style and atmospherically apt recording. Conversely, the overtly dramatic passages including the orchestral showpiece The Witches Ride are underplayed - precise and elegant but - to be blunt - not as exciting as they can be.

The singing is uniformly fine. The crucial central roles of Hänsel (Sayaka Shigeshima) and Gretel (Elisabeth Wimmer) are well contrasted but sung without any arch affectation. Wimmer in particular has a voice of ideal clarity and lightness and she sings the folksong like "Mitt den Füsschen tapp, tapp, tapp" with a perfect air of artless innocence. Indeed it is the sense of the artless rather than artful that pervades the whole performance much to its benefit. Peter, their father is sung by Uwe Schenker-Primus with an appealingly youthful vigour. Again, not the most nuanced or pointed interpretation but one that is not striving to give the character weight it does not have. Rebecca Teem does what she can with the rather underwhelming role of the mother. Both the tiny roles of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy are competently sung but it would be hard to prefer these over Auger and Popp for Eichhorn. Which leaves the role of the witch. In every sense this is the character that drives the drama - Humperdinck's Wagnerian leitmotifs for her permeate all the music and it is the threat of her presence in the wood that dominates the work. In terms of stage time it is not a particularly large role - not appearing until two-thirds of the way in but who and more to the point how the role is sung defines many recorded and live versions. The Weimar production opts for a man - Alexander Günther - in the role. Except for a couple of occasions when he uses falsetto - this is a remarkably 'straight' interpretation. Again, I initially found it rather too straight but with re-listening I found myself responding to hearing the role properly sung and actually found this rather urbane and debonair witch all the more dangerous precisely because he/she does not sound like a cartoon villain. I do miss the gleeful pantomime dame quality that Philip Langridge brought to the role for the (English language) Metropolitan Opera DVD production under Vladimir Jurowski but in the context of this production and without the benefit of visuals this works well and satisfyingly. For the opera's climax, there are no additional sound-effects marking the collapse of the magic oven. Indeed the witch's demise is rather under-dramatised although the recording does allow you to hear the detail of Humperdinck's scoring very well.

The booklet contains a complete libretto in German with a slightly odd English-only translation. Rather old-fashioned language is mixed in with the odd typo. For the rest there is no synopsis or detailed information about the work. Given the history of the first performance in Weimar the booklet essay focuses solely on that performance so there is little, indeed no information or discussion of the work itself. There are standard photographs and biographies of the artists alongside a couple of archive pictures of the composer and a bill poster for the first performance. The recording would seem to have been made under studio conditions - no venue is given - and the complete absence of any extraneous stage or audience noise would reinforce the supposition. As previously mentioned the MDG production team have found a very good orchestra/vocal balance - mirroring the performance in being unfussy but effective.

The strengths of the recording are the orchestra, the technical recording and the unified ensemble interpretation. The potential weaknesses are that self-same simplicity. Occasionally, this teeters on the edge of bland and rarely does any individual element threaten the memory of favourites from the past. However as a good representation of the high quality collaborative productions still being produced in regional German opera houses this is enjoyable.

Nick Barnard