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Cantatas for Soprano
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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921) Hänsel und Gretel (1893) [98:22]
Hänsel (Katrin Wundsam - mezzo-soprano)
Gretel (Alexandra Steiner - soprano)
Peter, the broom maker (Albert Dohmen - baritone)
Gertrud his wife (Ricarda Merbeth - mezzo-soprano)
The Witch (Christian Elsner - tenor)
The Sandman (Annika Gerhards - soprano)
The Dew Fairy (Alexandra Hutton - soprano)
Kinderchor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. Berlin Philharmonie, 2016 PENTATONEPTC5186605 SACD [56:24 + 38:48]
By rights this opera should be a clunker. Take a second-string Wagner acolyte suffering an extended creative block after the death of "the master", add a potentially twee story with adults pretending to be children, apply a liberal dose of Wagnerian compositional techniques to overburden this slight tale, step back and wait for explosion of critical and public derision. But instead we have one of the perennial charmers of late 19th Century Germanic opera. This is a one-hit wonder if ever there was one. Yes, other recordings of other works by Humperdinck exist including the rather grim Königskinder but posterity has decreed that by Hänsel und Gretel alone Engelbert Humperdinck will be judged.
This new recording is from the same team who have recorded nearly the entire Wagner canon live in SACD format. In that sense, given Humperdinck's aesthetic affiliation with Wagner this is a logical and enjoyable appendix to that extended survey. The critical response to Janowski's Wagner was varied, to say the least, but generally there was a sense that excellent playing and engineering was not matched by interpretative choices that were always effective, or by singing that was always equal to the demands of those massive scores. I doubt that anybody would suggest that the score of Hänsel und Gretel is as demanding on either count but there remains the quality of the playing and engineering, and in fact the singing is never less than good. The enduring popularity of the work on disc and in the theatre has ensured that there have been many recordings over the years, often featuring stellar singers of the age in some of the cameo roles. So while this new recording is very good, I am not sure that any of the individual parts represent the very best the catalogue can offer. On the other hand, it is a very coherent and enjoyable ensemble performance.
In a work dominated by the female (and children's) voice it is, in fact, the two male roles I enjoyed the most. The father of Albert Dohmen is attractively young and hearty but better still is the Witch of Christian Elsner. The score asks for a mezzo-soprano and indeed that was how it was sung at the premiere under Richard Strauss in Weimar in 1893. But in recent years the optional alternative of a tenor in the role has become more common. So it was on the last set of this opera I reviewed, by the Weimar Staatskappelle in 2014. There are aural advantages to this; by sitting in a different register the music gains a tonal variety it can otherwise lack. Also, on disc certainly, performances can be compromised by what might be termed the 'vocal characterisations' of the singers in the Witch's role. Certainly the all-star Decca/Vienna recording under Solti suffers on repeated listening from the vocal excesses of Anny Schlemm. That this role can be sung 'straight' and effectively by a female singer is demonstrated perfectly by the great Christa Ludwig on the RCA/Eichhorn—still my first and favourite version even if the actual recording is far from ideal. Returning to my 2014 review, I found the tenor there, Alexander Günther, to be unaffected and enjoyable in the role. Christian Elsner takes this a substantial step further. He featured in several of the Janowski/Wagner recordings including the title role in Parsifal, Mime in Siegfried and Loge in Das Rheingold. What struck me with Elsner's Witch is that he sings the role more as if it were a Wagnerian/Mime/Loge-esque role than I had ever considered possible.
Phillip Langridge in the English-language DVD production proved that it can be very effectively performed as an entertainingly grotesque pantomime dame role but Elsner finds a seductively evil allure that works exceptionally well. The roles of Hänsel and Gretel are well sung in a rather straightforward but attractive manner. As always on disc, the ear can sometimes struggle to differentiate between the parts without a visual guide, but both Wundsam and Steiner manage to sing effectively yet without the archness that can mar some versions. By no means bad but without the sheer tonal beauty of Arleen Auger and Lucia Popp for Eichhorn, Annika Gerhards and Alexandra Hutton are slightly forgettable as the Sandmännchen and the Taumännchen respectively.
The main glory of this set is the recording and its faithful reproduction of the lustrous playing of the Berlin RSO. Janowski does not conduct a high-octane performance and the live performance precludes the use of any post-production sound effects that occasionally overwhelm the Solti recording. Janowski prefers a warm and broadly rich sonority, so the Overture and Dream Pantomime are musical and emotional highlights. While the Witch's Ride is enjoyable too, it is not as sheerly dramatic as some readings. One might almost say this is a somewhat Wagnerian approach. The Pentatone recording is very good at providing a wide and detailed soundstage—the performance did attempt some distancing effects—for the waking children and father emerging from the forest, and these are simply but effectively handled. The recording does pick up the occasional slight 'noises off' from the audience but the benefits of the SACD format —I noticed Humperdink's use of the xylophone more than in other versions—outweigh the very minor contributions from the audience.
The discs are presented in two cardboard slips within a slimline cardboard box which also contains the booklet. This consists of brief essays about the work together with the libretto in German and English only. There are no artist biographies. This is a work I always enjoy hearing regardless of the season. My feeling about this new set is that its undoubted qualities of recording, orchestral playing and the singing of Christian Elsner are not really enough to push it in front of the more completely impressive sets already available, although I think it is the best of the tenor/Witch recordings I know. Aside from Solti or Eichhorn, I would add Tate or Suitner as preferable overall to Janowski.