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Len Mullenger:

HUMPERDINCK Hänsel und Gretel  Artists as listed, Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan EMI Great Recordings of the Century CMS5 67061 2 rec Kingsway Hall 1953 [63.39] [44.45]



Sandman/Dew Fairy
Elisabeth Grümmer
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Else Schürhoff
Maria von Ilosvay
Josef Metternich
Anny Felbermayer
Choirs of Loughton School for Girls and Bancroft's School

Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan

....The children had to feed themselves
And gain what nourishment they could
By picking berries in the wood.
Subsist on berries! Please don't try it!
They hardly form a balanced diet
And no one's adequately fed
Who merely nibbles Gingerbread .......
To save your children from such sins
Just feed them Multivitamins

Keith Norman
from How to be tremendously tuned in to Opera ed E.O.Parrott

This is the pre-eminent Christmas opera (although actually set in the Spring). Bacharach referred to it as 'Wagner for the Nursery' because Humperdinck had been closely involved in assisting Wagner in the preparation of Parsifal from 1880-1881. It is a century since this opera was written and half a century since this première recording of a complete performance. What can I add to the acres of print that has been used to extol this recording? It has been supreme in the catalogue and even now is still a serious consideration notwithstanding the mono sound. What is so remarkable (if you will allow me to mix metaphors) is that instead of listening with a wry smile of concession to 'mono' one is rarely aware of it and even then it is to express amazement at how good it really is. I was at a friend's house last night trying out the latest Chandos issues on high-end equipment and making a comparison between the re-mastered Rachmaninov Second symphony/Previn with the original release (see review). We then played this recording and were astounded at the depth and even apparent width of the sound stage, due entirely to the careful balancing. This is not a fake stereo record, it is true mono but it sounds uncanny. No wonder many gramophone flat-earthers used to insist that mono sound was better than the new-fangled stereo gimmick. This, of course, is down to the skills of producer Walter Legge and the balance engineer Douglas Larter. The voices are totally unaffected by the age of the recording and only very rarely does the orchestra sound a little backward and the strings undernourished and constricted compared to a modern recording. I do not have earlier CD transfers for comparison but the Penguin Guide noted a 'curious orchestral bass emphasis' in the original transfer but there is no trace of that on the re-mastered version. Tape hiss is evident, at about the same level as a good Dolby B cassette recording, which means that, due to its consistency, the brain soon filters it out and it does not present a problem. I can think of a number of stereo transfers to CD that sound worse! This performance is so vital and spontaneous and yet delicate and affecting that it has never really been surpassed. Indeed it might be said that it had actually suppressed the desire of other companies to record this work at all and I can only number a handful of other recordings (with Pritchard and Davis as serious contenders).

Richard Osborne has written a new introduction for this re-release which is both knowledgeable and amusing. I cannot resist quoting that Humperdinck took a lofty view of composing so had to be persuaded to write a children's opera 'at a time when upstart Italians were persuading musical Europe that opera's future lay in sex and violence masquerading as social realism'. We also learn that part of the success of this recording was that the work was new to Karajan and yet he did not rehearse over-much, so that Schwarzkopf remembers it as being a semi-improvised affair with Karajan seemingly 'endlessly surprised and delighted by the details of the score as they cropped up in performance'. That must be what gives this remarkable performance its freshness but equally might account for the rather slow Witch's ride which can be more exciting. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sings Gretel and Elisabeth Grümmer is Hansel, both immaculate in these roles of childhood innocence magically realised with subtlety of expression and interaction. The overture used on the recording was an original test recording that was considered to be so good that a further take was not necessary.

If you have never heard this work I envy you and would point you to the following highlights: 1) The overture which contains all the big tunes from the opera and is often broadcast in its own right [1] 2) The Act 1 duet between Hansel and Gretel [3], 3) Act 2: the Witches Ride [12] 4) The Sandman and Evening prayer [16 -17] 5) Disc 2 Act 3: Dew Fairy [2] 6) The Witch [8] 7) the Grand Waltz [13]

Nothing has been spared in the presentation which has the feel of a full-price offering complete with a full sized, well-illustrated booklet/libretto of over 150 pages. This does not fit inside the plastic CD case but rests separately in the slipcase. The two CDs are housed in the traditional bulky double-case format capable of holding up to four CDs. This is surely more costly to produce and uses up shelf-space. Considering how many 2for1 CDs are presented in slim-line packaging I cannot see the point. And that is my only reservation about this glorious offering!

Highly recommended


Len Mullenger


Len Mullenger

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