Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel (CD review)

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Grummer, Else Schurhoff, Maria von Ilosvay, Josef Metternich, Anny Felbermayer. Herbert von Karajan, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI 50999 6 40716 2 6. (2-disc set, plus bonus disc).

No, not THAT Engelbert Humperdinck.

Not the pop singer who filched the name. This one is the German composer (1854-1921) who is most famous for his children's opera Hansel und Gretel, loosely based, of course, on the popular fairy tale by the brothers Grimm. Humperdinck premiered the work on December 23, 1893, and it has been a favorite, especially around Christmas time, ever since. And how could it miss? It is one of the sweetest, gentlest, most tuneful, yet exciting pieces of music ever written for children or adults, with all the qualities of a great folk story.

The plot, well known to all, involves a brother and sister who live on the edge of a forest. A witch haunts the forest, and she delights in baking little children into gingerbread. Nice. Hansel and Gretel's family is very poor, and one day while picking berries, the brother and sister get lost and captured by the witch. But the resourceful children turn the tables on the witch, shoving her into the oven, instead. The story is simple enough for kids to follow, as well as non opera buffs to enjoy. With its abundance of cheerful, enthralling, atmospheric, and sometimes spooky melodies, it's a sure crowd pleaser.

Of all the recordings of the work, it is Karajan's that is most magical. EMI have reissued it numerous times on LP and CD, this being at least the third time it's appeared on compact disc. Sure, it's in monaural, but it's good monaural, and it's worth the minor bother of not being completely up to audiophile standards.

I've always liked Karajan's Romantic opera recordings more than his purely orchestral performances, probably because most operas of the nineteenth century benefit from the kind of lush, luxuriant, idealistic, glamorized, and slightly sentimental treatment the conductor provides them. Certainly, Hansel und Gretel profits from this approach. It also helps that he has a terrific cast of singers. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf plays Gretel in a most delightful, spontaneous, and purely innocent manner. Elisabeth Grummer is her brother Hansel, greatly pleasing as the boy who pretends not to be afraid but who is as petrified as his sister is of the events in the forest.

As the mother, Maria von Ilosvay's vocals might have been a tad lower to differentiate her voice from that of the children's, but the added maturity in her tone nicely compensates. Josef Metternich as the father, and the only adult male in the cast, is appropriately masculine and domineering. And Anny Felbermayer as the Sandman and the Dew Fairy couldn't be more charming.

Still, for me, and I daresay for a lot of other listeners, the real star of the show is the witch. I mean, the villains are usually always the most-interesting characters in any melodrama, no? Else Schurhoff plays the witch, who finally shows up in Act III. After her character's ingratiating pleasantries, she becomes plenty scary, with a fine witch's cackle. Her prominent songs "Hokuspokus" and "Hurr Hopp Hopp Hopp" become downright frightening and always fun in their diabolical way.

For Karajan's part, he handles the accompaniment and pacing with grace and style and sheer sorcery. The purely orchestral parts, like the opening Prelude, the "Witch's Ride," and the "Dream Pantomime" are engaging, ominous, and beguiling respectively. He ends the play with a joyous celebration that all of the performers pull off in thrilling fashion.

The CD set, now issued in EMI's "Home of the Opera" series, comes as before on two discs, with a third, bonus disc containing a scene synopsis and libretto with translation, which you can access or print out as a PDF file from any computer with a CD-ROM drive and Adobe Acrobat.

EMI recorded the mono performance in June of 1953 at London's Kingsway Hall, just a year or two short of the introduction of stereo into home use. Nevertheless, it hardly matters. There is a slight bit of background noise, not at all objectionable. A wide dynamic range, a fairly wide frequency response, a decent bass, and some remarkably clear, realistic tonal reproduction make for exciting listening. Yes, it would have been nice to have had the recording in stereo, but once the singing starts, one forgets about it. Voices sound excellent, very clear and natural, and one hardly notices that the orchestra doesn't really spread out across the speakers. The sonics open up with a fine bloom behind the singers, which is good enough.

If you must have a stereo version of Hansel und Gretel, there are several good ones to choose among.  My own favorite is from Jeffrey Tate, also on EMI, but even it is not as enchanting as Karajan's and company. For other possibilities, consult "The Basic Classical Collection" (http://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2009/09/basic-classical-collection-on-compact.html) on the left of the page.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa