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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hänsel und Gretel (1893)
Hänsel – Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano)
Gretel – Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Gertrud, Mother – Maria von Ilosvay (contralto)
Peter, a broom-maker, Father – Josef Metternich (baritone)
The Witch – Else Schürhoff (contralto)
The Sandman & The Dew-Fairy – Anny Felbermayer (soprano)
The Philharmonia Orchestra, Choirs of Loughton High School for Girls, Essex & Bancroft’s School/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 27, 29, 30 June and 1, 2 July 1953, Kingsway Hall, London (Hänsel und Gretel); 7 October, 21 July and 21 December 1955 (Mozart); October 1955 (Strauss)
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO162 [63:00 + 77:10]

Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, a perennial favorite during the Christmas holidays was once famously denigrated by no less than Wieland Wagner as a second-rate opera. I completely disagree with his assessment. No doubt he based it on the vein of sentimentality that runs through the work. The music is every bit as complex as anything that his famous grandfather, Richard Wagner ever produced and much of it has an innate charm. This was a skill that the incredibly gifted Wagner completely lacked. In one particular aspect Hänsel sits among the finest operas ever written, that is in the dramatic pacing of the work. Humperdinck and his sister, librettist Adelheid Wette understood that the witch’s 20-minute scene in Act 3 was the crux of the entire piece. Everything else in the opera builds up to that essential dramatic moment. Things then wrap up neatly in about 15 minutes after that. To keep the drama moving Humperdinck ensured that the menacing presence of the witch was felt throughout the entire opera by using the impetus of constant reminders played in the orchestra before we ever actually encounter her. He then strings out the anticipation just a little further by letting us hear her off stage a couple of times before we finally get to encounter her. This is true theatrical genius. I would argue that by having the great dramatic zenith occur in the final 30 minutes of the opera the audience is given one of the finest examples of a dramatic arc in the repertoire. There are very few operas that have come close to achieving this. Carmen and Don Giovanni among more serious works are perhaps the closest.

This new release from Pristine Audio is the umpteenth release of the classic 66-year old recording set down by Herbert von Karajan and renowned producer Walter Legge in 1953, with the forces of the recently founded Philharmonia Orchestra. For many classical music lovers this recording has never been equalled since. EMI have released several incarnations of it so the reason for acquiring this new version would be the XR remastering done by Andrew Rose. The XR ambient stereo process developed by Mr Rose has won many favourable reviews on previous releases from the LP era. I approached auditioning this set with much anticipation as I was able to do a side by side comparison with the 1999 EMI remaster engineered by Paul Bailey for the “Great Recordings of the Century” series that EMI was pursuing at that period.

The cast under the loving direction of Herbert von Karajan has long been considered the finest assembled. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf possessed a voice redolent of purest spun silver at this stage in her career. For these sessions she successfully disguised her rather sophisticated tones to emulate the sound of a young girl. She incorporates a true sense of laughter and glee in her singing during the duet Brüderchen, komm, tanz mit mir, which sounds entirely spontaneous. In the Forest Scene of Act 2 her tone expands impressively as Gretel’s fears begin to mount. This is a superb performance by a truly intelligent and gifted singer. She stands well above all of her excellent competitors on other sets.

For the role of Hänsel Legge engaged another legendary German soprano Elisabeth Grümmer. Her voice is more burnished silver in its qualities and contrasts beautifully with Schwarzkopf’s. She too makes her voice sound more boyish than it naturally did, but without sacrificing any of the natural shimmer to her sound. Frederica von Stade (Sony-Pritchard) has always been my favorite Hänsel but Ms Grümmer does take the honours here.

The patrician German baritone Josef Metternich is possibly the most elegant sounding Peter in recorded history. It is worth noting that Peter has received a plethora of excellent interpreters on commercial recordings. The fairly stiff competition includes the likes of Walter Berry (Decca-Solti) and (EMI- Cluytens), Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau (RCA/Eurodisc-Eichorn), Siegmund Nimsgern (Sony-Pritchard), and Hermann Prey (EMI-Wallberg). This role always seems to bring out the best qualities of the singers who interpret it. Still, if I was forced to choose, Metternich stands at the top of a very well endowed list.

Gertrude’s role presents the lost hope and suffering through poverty in the opera. Those who attempt this role have to realize the burden of human emotion falls mostly on them amongst the other characters. Maria von Ilosavy was a powerful Hungarian contralto who was most renowned for singing Erda at Bayreuth during the early 1950’s. Here she displays a wonderful solid and even core of tone which she has modulated to present a more human sounding character than her famously stentorian Earth goddess. She doesn’t quite eclipse the achievements of Hanna Schwarz (EMI-Tate) or another wonderful Hungarian Julia Hamari (Decca-Solti).

The all-important role of the Witch requires an over the top, tour de force blend of sinister combined with comic timing, a nearly impossible blend of qualities. She veers sharply between an over sweet, fey grandmother to sinister malevolence in a very short space of time. German mezzo Else Schürhoff was chosen by Legge because of her wonderful skills of declamation and not necessarily for her voice. While good in a general sense, hers is the only interpretation on this recording that I find to be less successful than that of her rivals. She is quite outclassed by Anny Schlemn (Decca-Solti), Elisabeth Söderström (Sony-Pritchard), Marjana Lipovšek (EMI-Tate), and even tenor Peter Schreier in a version on Berlin Classics. All of these singers do a superb job of representing the various facets of the witch. I have deliberately left out mentioning Christa Ludwig’s 2 versions as she is in a class by herself in owning this role completely. Her 1971 recording (RCA/Eurodisc-Eichorn) could stand as the reference point for all time for apprentice witches. Her recording 22 years later (Phillips-Davis) remained remarkably consistent with the earlier one despite a more elderly sound that had crept into her tone and the need to eschew the highest notes.

For the Sandman and Dewfairy Legge used one singer, the soubrette soprano Anny Felbermeyer. She too was encouraged to vary her tone to sound like two different singers, which she manages successfully. Hers was a light, sweet soprano sound with a childish quality about it that was well suited to her fach.

With regards to the Pristine XR process transfer, the first thing I note in comparison to the recent CD issue is the perfect clarity of the sound. Deriving from a pristine set of original LPs there is no sign of any degradation from the source material. One would expect that the orchestral sound would suffer in some way but things are quite to the contrary. The orchestra has more presence and focus in the Pristine transfer. The well known overture has quite a sprightly step to it in Karajan’s approach. The oboes sound more alive in the Pristine transfer and the trumpets and triangle seem to leap from the speakers in direct comparison to the EMI CDs which is surprising when you consider the EMI release comes from the original master tapes. Generally the stereophonic feel about this old mono recording is more magically realised in the new transfer. One example is the wonderful effect between the echo and the cuckoo that respond to Gretel’s call of Ist jemand da? during the Forest scene of Act 2.

When I was switching back and forth between the older and new release I thought I could detect an almost imperceptible difference in pitch during a portion of the Witch’s ride prelude to Act 2. The newer version sounds quite correct and natural in comparison to the EMI CDs. I wrote to Pristine and questioned the point to Andrew Rose who engineered the remaster. He responded to my email and confirmed that a computer analysis had revealed a small pitch drift, a common occurrence with the older tape machines that were used by EMI. This was fixed with a very minor pitch correction of less than a quarter of a semitone on a section of that particular track.

As a bonus we are given a series of Mozart and Strauss scenes that were recorded by Elisabeth Grümmer in 1955. Mozart was Grümmer’s specialty throughout her career and these tracks give a very good sampling of her gifts. Her version of the Countess’ Dove Sono from Le Nozze di Figaro makes me me wish she had made a complete recording of that opera.

All things considered this newly remastered version by Pristine has proved its viability by the result. The work Mr Rose put into this release has brought me a new feeling of wonderment at this old recording who’s charms have increased over the years. This will now be the set I will pull of the shelf rather than any of the older EMI releases.

A spectacular remastering of the much beloved 1953 recording. Definitely worth purchasing even if you already own a previous issue of the set.

Mike Parr

Previous review: Göran Forsling

Bonus Tracks

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Le Nozze di Figaro:
16. Porgi amor [4:15]
17. Che soave zefiretto* [2:48]
18. Dove sono i bel momenti [6:44]
Così fan tutte:
19. Temerari ... Come scoglio [6:04]
Die Zauberflöte:
20. Bald prangt, den Morgen zu verkünden [6:15]
Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
Der Rosenkavalier:
21. Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein** [6:54]

Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano), *Erna Berger (soprano) (17), **Erika Köth (soprano) (tr. 21)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Schüchter

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