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" ( on the left of the page.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa