About this Recording
8.110897-98 - HUMPERDINCK: Hansel und Gretel (Schwarzkopf, Karajan) (1953)

Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hänsel und Gretel

Ever since its première on 23rd December 1893 in Weimar, when it was conducted by Richard Strauss, Engelbert Humperdinck’s three-act opera Hänsel und Gretel has become firmly established, proving to be the most significant stage work in the German operatic tradition between Wagner’s Parsifal and Strauss’s Salome in international repertory.

Originally composed for a children’s Christmas celebration for use by his own fireside, the libretto of the opera was written by the composer’s sister Adelheid Wette after a tale in the publication Kinder- und Hausmärchen of 1812-14 by the brothers Grimm. The story, set in the Harz Mountains near the Ilsenstein Peak, was modified and adapted by Wette with the characters of the two parents changed from a selfish stepmother and weak but loving father who abandon the children in the forest to ease their own deprivations, to a good-natured man who enjoys his tipple rather too much and a pessimistic woman who, in today’s world, would be called a depressive. What the composer manages to great effect is in keeping his music basically simple. For example, the magical and life-enhancing Overture (really a potpourri of themes but superbly constructed), the fresh and playful Dance Duet in the first act, the enchanting Evening Prayer and ensuing Dream Pantomime in the second, the brief Prelude to the third, the joy after the two children have pushed the Witch into her own oven, and the fourth scene, when all the gingerbread children become human again, concluding with the happy reunion of children and parents.

Born in Siegburg in 1854, Humperdinck studied first in Cologne with the pianist, conductor and composer Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885) and later in Munich. He met Wagner in Italy in 1879 and assisted in the preparation of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1880-81, even composing several bars for the opera which were later discarded. Later he was to compose a bridge sequence to join the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde for use in the concert hall. He taught musical theory at the Conservatory in Barcelona in 1885-86 before being appointed Professor of Harmony at the Hochschule in Frankfurt-am-Main between 1890 and 1896. He also served concurrently as music critic for the Frankfurter Zeitung. This was followed by an appointment in 1900 as Director of the Berlin Akademie.

As a composer Humperdinck wrote a further six operas which, with the exception of Die Königskinder, first given at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1910, have now become totally forgotten. He also wrote incidental music for a number of German productions of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1905), A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest (both 1906) and As You Like It (1907) and also contributed a set of Kinderlieder.

Humperdinck’s musical language is firmly wedded to the style of Wagner, although in no way does he attempt to expand and develop the older composer’s association with characters and musical motifs. What he does achieve in a more obvious manner is an opera of unique and long-lasting charm, employing traditional folk-tunes and some newly invented ones, so it is little wonder that children and their parents have found the work to be of continuing attraction.

The performance history of Hänsel und Gretel is interesting in that it was the first-ever complete opera to be broadcast from the stage in Britain on 6th January 1923, from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Eight years later it became the first work to be transmitted from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and was the first televised stage work to be given in a studio production on WRGB-TV, General Electric’s pioneering station in Schenectady, New York.

Although extended highlights from the opera were made by the German Polydor company in 1929, the first complete recordings of the whole opera came from a 1943 German radio broadcast conducted by Artur Rother. The complete commercially-made studio recording, sung in English, was made by Columbia Records Inc over two days in June 1947 in the Metropolitan Opera House, the conductor being Max Rudolf. This was followed by the 1953 London-made version, conducted by Karajan who, strange to relate, had never conducted the work previously. In no way could one have guessed this from his faultless handling of the score. From the opening bars to the conclusion, he and the Philharmonia Orchestra constantly ravish the ear with finely balanced orchestral playing. This is certainly Karajan at his finest. The soloists work as a real team and the miracles of balance and distancing achieved by the engineer Douglas Larter are such that there is a real sense of the theatre in the recording. Overseeing everything is the impresario and producer Walter Legge, whose careful preparation prior to the recording and masterly guiding hand are evident throughout the whole project. Given the quality of performance and recording it is little wonder this set has achieved a classic status over the past fifty years, and its reissue, marking the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, is timely.

Walter Legge chose the German soprano Elisabeth Grümmer (1911-1986) for the role of Hänsel and in every way she proves ideal. Originally trained as an actress it was not until 1940 that she made her début as a singer at Aachen as the First Flowermaiden in Parsifal. She moved to Duisberg in 1942 and four years later joined the Stadtische (later Deutsche) Oper, Berlin where she remained until 1972. During the 1950s she sang in Dresden, at Bayreuth, where her rôles included Elsa, Freia and Gutrune, Glyndebourne and at the Edinburgh Festival with the Hamburg Staatsoper, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as Eva in 1951 under Beecham. She also appeared regularly at the Salzburg Festival and in Vienna but her American début was delayed until 1967, when she appeared both at the Metropolitan and City Operas in New York. She was a consummate Mozartian as can be discened from her interpretations of the rôles of Ilia, Donna Anna and the Countess, which well illustrate her splendid vocal resources and excellent musicianship. Her repertoire also included Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes, the Marschallin, the Countess in Capriccio and Agathe in Der Freischütz. She recorded extensively for EMI.

The rôle of Gretel was undertaken by the German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (b. 1915), the wife of Walter Legge, whom she married in 1953. She studied at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik and later with the soprano Maris Ivogun, making her début as one of the Flowermaidens in Parsifal with the Stadtische Oper, Berlin in 1938. Originally a lyrical soprano she undertook rôles such as Adele in Die Fledermaus, Musetta in La Bohème and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos when she joined the Vienna State Opera under Karl Bohm in 1943. Her first overseas appearance was with this company on their visit to London in 1947 when she sang Donna Elvira and Marzelline in Fidelio. She then joined the fledgling Covent Garden Company, where for five seasons she sang a variety of rôles, mostly in English. Alongside these appearances, Schwarzkopf sang at the Salzburg Festival (1946-1964), La Scala, Milan (1948-1963), San Francisco (1955- 1964) and, finally, the Metropolitan in New York in 1964. She was greatly admired in the rôles of the Marschallin, Fiordiligi, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro and Donna Elvira. She also had a distinguished parallel career as a Lieder singer in the concert hall.

The German baritone Josef Metternich (b. 1916) studied in his native Cologne and later Berlin and then sang as a chorus member in both Cologne and Bonn. His solo début in 1941 was in Lohengrin in Berlin. In the postwar years his reputation grew with appearances throughout Germany in both the German and Italian repertory. His British début was in the title rôle of Der fliegende Holländer in 1951, followed by engagements at La Scala, Milan and the Vienna State Opera. His first American appearance was at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York as Don Carlo in La forza del destino in 1953. Joining the Staatsoper in Munich in 1954, Metternich created the rôle of Johannes Keppler in Hindemith’s Die Harmonie der Welt in 1957 as well as singing at the opening of the rebuilt Nationaltheater in 1963 when he portrayed Kothner in Die Meistersinger. His many recordings display a vibrant voice, especially suited to the Italian repertoire.

The Hungarian-born Maria von Ilosvay (b. 1913) first studied at the Conservatory in her native Budapest and then at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna. After winning first prize in an international vocal competition in Vienna, she toured the United States as a member of the Salzburg Opera Guild during the years 1937-39 under the name Esther von Ilosvay. In 1940 she joined the Hamburg Staatsoper. After 1946 she sang regularly in Vienna, Munich, London, Stuttgart, Milan and Holland. Her Bayreuth Festival début was in 1951 and she later appeared with the Hamburg Staatsoper at the Edinburgh Festival in 1955. Her voice possessed a dark glowing quality and the richness of her tone was admired in both the concert hall and opera house. She recorded for both Columbia and Philips.

For the rôle of the Witch Legge chose the German contralto Else Schüroff (1898-1961). Born in Wuppertal, she studied at the Academy of Church and School Music in Berlin until 1928 when she made her début. Joining the Hanover Opera in 1929, she moved to Munich in 1937, then the Vienna State Opera from 1941 until 1953, when she moved to Hamburg until her retirement. Her career was mainly based in Germanspeaking countries. Her recordings include Die Meistersinger with Knappertsbusch, Salome with Clemens Krauss, and Die Zauberflöte with Karajan.

The rôles of The Sandman and The Dew Fairy were undertaken by the Austrian lyric soprano Anny Felbermayer (b. 1924). She had studied in her native Vienna at the city’s Akademie für Musik and later won the Cebotari prize and competitions in Geneva and Verviers. She joined the Vienna State Opera in 1951, continuing there for many years. In addition to appearances at La Scala, Milan and Brussels, she was a regular performer at the Salzburg Festival during the 1950s and 1960s. She possessed an attractive, welltrained voice and displayed an excellent stage presence.

The Austrian-born conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) was possibly the most significant conductor during the second half of the twentieth century. As an interpreter he is thought to have made more recordings than any other classical artist. In addition he was conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1955 until his death, but also his influence in both Vienna and at the Salzburg Festival during the same period was immense. Further to these were his appearances with the Philharmonia Orchestra between 1948 and 1960 but also his directing at La Scala in Milan and his visits to Japan. He left a large number of filmed recordings of his conducting.

Malcolm Walker

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