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Hansel and Gretel is often seen as the most child-friendly opera in the standard repertoire. As a musical fairy-tale it has all the right ingredients to delight a young audience: youthful protagonists who get into trouble with their mother (something all children can surely identify with!); a wicked witch who provides a suitable level of peril; and a happy ending with the family reunited and all the other children restored to life. Many opera houses in Europe and the USA deliberately schedule performances around Christmas time, and in fact this opera was chosen for the debut Saturday matinee broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Christmas Day 1931.
In the summer of 1953 Walter Legge assembled an all-star cast for the very first studio recording of Hansel and Gretel. Herbert von Karajan was chosen to conduct, continuing the relationship that Legge had forged with him during the recordings of Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte in 1950. Legge used the orchestra he had himself founded after the war. The Philharmonia lacked a permanent conductor but successfully enticed guest conductors such as Furtwangler and Toscanini to perform with them in London. Karajan conducted the orchestra regularly in the early 1950s and this recording clearly reflects the comfortable familiarity between them. Early reviews of the recording singled out the ‘immense care’ Karajan took with the score and the ‘highest possible standard’ of orchestral playing.
The siblings, Hansel and Gretel, are sung by Elisabeth Grümmer and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. As a well-established operatic superstar Schwarzkopf has tended to headline all the issues of this opera, but to my mind the outstanding performance really comes from Grümmer. Grümmer’s career was built around singing Mozart and lighter Wagnerian roles in the major opera houses of Germany and Austria. While Schwarzkopf gives us all the clarity, precision and insight anyone could want, Grümmer gives us youthful innocence as well as a very credible boyish boldness in her singing. It’s a performance as Hansel that surely has never been bettered on record. Although fans of Grümmer’s art can listen to a number of her live recordings that have been released on CD, she made only a handful of studio recordings of complete operas and this one is surely the most memorable.
An excellent all-round cast provide fine support to Schwarzkopf and Grümmer. Maria von Ilosvay (Bayreuth’s resident Erda and Waltraute during the 1950s) captures a mother’s weariness to perfection and Josef Metternich is equally excellent as the father. Legge needed just five recording days to complete this recording in June and July 1953 and perhaps this helps it sustain a certain freshness. No section was over-rehearsed or over-recorded, indeed the prelude was famously recorded in just one take. The final result was instantly recognised as something very special with Opera Magazine describing it as ‘highly rewarding operatic treat’ that would ‘give constant delight for many years to come.’ Even when set against modern stereo versions this 1953 EMI classic remains the best studio recording of this charming opera.
Elisabeth Grümmer was a renowned Mozartian so we are fortunate that she made studio recordings of operatic arias during three separate recording sessions in July, October and December 1955, demonstrating her mastery of Mozartian line and style. Also recorded at this session was an extract from Der Rosenkavalier with Grümmer singing the role of Octavian. She would later move on to singing the Marschallin. In all these recordings Grümmer is accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Schüchter.
HUMPERDINCK Hänsel und Gretel
1. Overture (8:36)
2. Act I - Suse, liebe Suse (3:43)
3. So recht! (1:59)
4. Brüderchen, komm, tanz mit mir (3:38)
5. Holla! Himmel! Die Mutter! (1:40)
6. Marsch! Fort in den Wald! (2:30)
7. Ral la la la, ral la la la (5:30)
8. Drüben hinter'm Herrenwald (1:32)
9. Doch halt, wo bleiben die Kinder? (1:38)
10. Wenn sie sich verirrten (1:25)
11. Eine Hex', steinalt (2:42)
12. Hexenritt (4:23)
13. Act II - Ein Männlein steht im Walde (1:29)
14. Juchhe! Mein Erbelkörbchen ist voll (1:25)
15. Kuckuck, Kuckuck, Eierschluck! (3:24)
16. Gretel, ich weiß den Weg nicht me... (4:44)
17. Der kleine Sandmann bin ich (3:14)
18. Abends, will ich schlafen gehn (3:00)
19. Pantomime (6:34)
1. Act III - Vorspiel (2:23)
2. Der kleine Taumann heiß' ich (2:01)
3. Wo bin ich? Wach' ich? (5:48)
4. Bleib stehn! Bleib stehn! (0:42)
5. Wie duftet's von dorten (1:56)
6. Alles bleibt still (1:52)
7. Knusper, knusper Knäuschen (3:31)
8. Ich bin Rosine Leckermaul (4:17)
9. Halt! Hokuspokus, Hexenschuß! (1:24)
10. Nun, Gretel, sei vernünftig und ... (5:15)
11. Hurr hopp hopp hopp (1:44)
12. Auf! Wach auf, mein Jüngelchen (4:12)
13. Juchei! Nun ist die Hexe Tod (2:43)
14. Erlöst, befreit, für alle Zeit! (4:09)
15. Ei, da sind sie ja! Vater! Mutter! (2:22)
Hänsel - Elisabeth Grümmer
Gretel - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Gertud, Mother - Maria Von Ilosvay
Peter, a broom-maker, Father - Josef Metternich
the Witch - Else Schürhoff
The Sandman & The Dew-Fairy - Anny Felbermayer
The Philharmonia Orchestra
Choirs of Loughton High School For Girls, Essex & Bancroft’s School
Conducted by Herbert Von Karajan
ELISABETH GRÜMMER 1955 Aria Recordings
16. MOZART Le Nozze Di Figaro - Act 2 - Porgi amor (4:15)
17. MOZART Le Nozze Di Figaro - Act 3 - *Che soave zefiretto (2:48)
18. MOZART Le Nozze Di Figaro - Act 3 - Dove sono i bei momenti (6:44)
19. MOZART Così Fan Tutte - Act 1 - Temerari - Come scoglio (6:04)
20. MOZART Die Zauberflöte - Act 2 - Bald prangt, den Morgen zu verkünden (6:15)
21. R. STRAUSS Der Rosenkavalier - Act 3 - **Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein (6:54)
Elisabeth Grümmer, soprano
with *Erna Berger and **Erika Köth, sopranos
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Wilhelm Schüchter
XR remastering by Andrew Rose
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Elisabeth Grümmer
Hänsel & Gretel
Rec. 27, 29, 30 June and 1, 2 July 1953
Kingsway Hall, London
Rec. 7/10, 7/10, 21/7, 21/12, 7/10 1955
Rec. October 1955
Total duration: 2hr 20:24
"We have come near to
perfection before, but never so close as in this recording"
I always thought it could be done if someone really set their mind to it, and insisted on it: and now it has been done. We have come near to perfection before, but never so close as in this recording of Humperdinck's exquisite fairy-tale opera. It is still a recording, which means there are bound to be some imperfections, small as they are here, but the scene in the forest (Act 2) is sung and played and recorded with a sensitive regard for the atmosphere the music can create, if allowed to, that has, until now, not been equalled.
The stage direction tells us that on the rise of the curtain to this scene Gretel “is humming quietly to herself” the folk song “There stands a little man in the wood alone". Elisabeth Schwarzkopf produces the illusion perfectly, and the orchestra respond in like manner, all, as the recording gives it to us, on the plane of absolute quietness. The cuckoo calls, and soft, mysterious voices echo the lost children's cry “Who's there?”—we are with them in the dark forest—and it is, as directed, with a “soft, gentle voice” the Sandman brings sleep to the children, another perfectly achieved illusion of a fairy-tale personage, faintly seen in the dusk. Then, very quietly, the two children sing their ineffably lovely prayer about the angels and once more we are with them, as even in the opera house looking at the stage we could not be.
The tender intimacy of performance and recording are something to marvel at—one never thinks of the studio and the opera could not have been better cast. The two Elisabeths sound always like the delightful children they are supposed to be and avoid all suspicion of archness: and both sing beautifully throughout. Josef Metternich and Marie von Ilosvay are equally good as the parents and Else Schuroff produces an amazing variety of sinister sounds as the witch. Her "hocus-pocus" is really frightening. Anny Felbermeyer's pretty voice is brought forward as the Dew Fairy (quite correctly) and this differentiates her sufficiently from the Sandman. The fresh and enthusiastic singing of the school choirs is pure delight: and when principals and chorus sang the last words in the opera, to Humperdinck's inspired melody, “When past bearing is our grief, God the Lord will send relief”, I was moved to tears. Karajan has been accused of over-speeding in his Mozart operatic recordings—and with some justice—but he never puts a baton wrong, so to speak, in this opera. I like the slow unfolding of the “prayer” melody at the start of the Overture, and there is not a moment when he over-plays the brilliantly scored sections. The themes are, as everyone knows, woven together with a Meistersinger-like richness, but the counterpoint is always made beautifully clear. The Witches Ride (she is perhaps a sort of fallen Valkyrie!) is vividly done—the big drum comes out with startling reality—and the gradual transition to the quietness of the forest scene managed with much skill. Karajan is, in fact, in affectionate accord with the score throughout.
The recording of the orchestra—who play like the angels of the dream tableau—-is really superb and the high string tone comes out with a beauty tape recording has long denied it.
Is it too much to hope that Columbia may print the libretto in German and English so that listeners may get the fullest enjoyment from the opera. All the singers act admirably with their voices, but this extra help is needed as well.
When I was a talks producer at the B.B.C. and wanted conditions to be as favourable to the broadcaster as possible I used to say, half jokingly, “There must be love in the studio” to all concerned: and I feel this spirit was about in the studio when Hänsel und Gretel was being recorded. It sounds, anyway, as if it was sung, played, recorded, and—not least—directed with love. For that and this beautiful result our most grateful thanks.
The Gramophone, January 1954