, December 2004
“So soon after the Avie Hänsel und Gretel came along (in English ), here is a reminder of the magnificent von Karajan version, with a cast to die for and playing from the Philharmonia that will make you melt.
If that’s not all, Mark Obert–Thorn has done a sterling job in his capacity as Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer. Naxos also throw in a generous twenty or so minutes of comparative excerpts, a fascinating mix of talents (more below) from the HMV, Fonotipia and Odeon catalogues. A third Elisabeth, as if two were not enough, contributes (Elisabeth Schumann).
To the opera complete, first of all. Many might already own the GROC incarnation and, if so, it is not absolutely necessary to add this to your shelves. If you do feel the need, you will, of course, be able to use the libretto supplied by HMV. No matter how good the synopses from Naxos are, they don’t form any sort of substitute for following the text, especially in this opera where there are many delightful verbal touches.
Heard in German it just sounds right, no matter how careful Avie’s translation is. Of course this year is the 150th anniversary of Humperdinck’s birth so the freeing of this classic recording (for such it is) from copyright is indeed timely for Naxos.
Take the Overture, with its horns not only beautifully balanced but also clarifying the interplay of lines in a way denied to Avie’s forces, or the later meltingly beautiful, stunningly played woodwind. Everything, from every member, is so on the ball. Karajan times the rallentandos towards the end to perfection. In fact his handling of the score throughout is preternaturally well managed, with the Philharmonia obeying his every whim. Karajan paved the path for his interpretation by pointing out the deeper levels in the score. Yet in the Dance Duet (CD1 track 3) he conspires with Schwarzkopf in particular to create the atmosphere of a real German Volkslied.
The cast is ideal. This type of music suits Schwarzkopf to a tee. Her clarity of tone and expression, coupled with her diction, is perfect for the role of Gretel. Her opposite number, her Hänsel, is Elisabeth Grümmer, in fine fettle here
The darkening of the atmosphere for Act 1 Scene 2 (CD1 track 4) is a triumph for both Karajan and the mother, Hungarian contralto Maria von Ilosvay, whose creamy voice is laced with sadness and regret. This comes in stark contrast to the previous folkloristic antics. Her husband is baritone Josef Metternich, as lusty and full–voiced as they come at his entrance. Ilosvay’s replies are perfectly placed.
On a production level, the gap between Acts 1 and 2 seems far too short — around two seconds. Yet all is forgotten with Karajan’s stomping Witches Ride (Hexenritt), not to mention the gorgeously lullaby–like beginning of Scene 1 of Act 2 (CD1 track 9) and his ensuing clouding of mood as the mist rises in the forest. Yet Scene 2 is surely the highlight, with Anny Felbermayer’s ultra–sweet Sandman and culminating in the hushed Evening Prayer. It is Karajan who weaves the spell here though, with Grümmer and Schwarzkopf’s voices spinning soft, glorious lines over the orchestra. It is a moment — three, to be accurate — where time stops. And so it should. The Dream Pantomime that follows is simply magnificent, with glowing wind and brass at the climax.
Felbermeyer returns as a delightful Dew–Fairy to greet Act Three … and what a miracle Karajan makes of the prelude, shaping each phrase, breathing with it! Enter the only other character not discussed so far: the Witch, played here by Else Schürhoff. Schürhoff sings with great character — she was a very experienced artist. Her spell is superb, her laugh the very incarnation of witchery.
Karajan moulds the final stages of the opera with the hand of a Master, even imbuing the Philharmonia with echt–Austrian lilt (CD 2 track 10, from around thirty seconds in especially). The final stages (Act 3 Scene 4 onwards) are gentle and full of human warmth.
Things get really interesting with the fillers. The mere presence of Conchita Supervía will for many, myself included, be recommendation enough, and indeed, in partnership with Ines Maria Ferraris, the two tracks are spell–binding. This is very witty Humperdinck, perhaps wearing itself lighter than with Karajan. Hüsch’s Besenbinderlied from Act 1 (‘Ral la la la …’) is perhaps not as dramatically convincing as with Metternich. The real joy comes with the ‘third Elisabeth’ — Schumann, accompanied by piano — and some sort of bird–whistle … or is that someone really whistling? Not Schumann, surely? She is cleverly multi–tracked at the end to duet with herself.
Schumann’s voice is loveliness in sound, conveying just the right amount of innocence.
I am not so sure about the orchestral arrangement of ‘Hurr hopp’, which sounds like cartoon music (Berlin State Opera Orchestra), but there is a joyous swing to the Witch Waltz under Weissmann (with Seinemeyer and Helen Jung doing the vocal honours). Shame it peters out rather, as this set as a whole is surely one of the real jewels in Naxos’s crown.
And don’t just play it at Christmas, either!