It's a sad state of affairs that Englebert Humperdinck is best known for having his name appropriated by a "crooner" from Leicester, and for having his most played compositions being the concert endings he wrote at Wagner's behest for the orchestral chunks from the Ring and the Act 3 Prelude of Lohengrin!
Fortunately, his one true masterpiece, Hansel und Gretel, is wonderfully well represented on recordings, and receives ever more performances in the Opera House.
It is not a work written for children- some recent stage productions have been very dark indeed-any more than the Grimm "Folk Tale" from which it came, and it is best approached by the listener by "buying in " to the innocent sentimentality which this endlessly tuneful work offers. I was prompted to this review by the release of the new Glyndebourne live recording, more of which anon, but I also belatedly purchased this, the Davis set at mid-price taking my tally of versions to 11, and it is with the Davis I propose to start.
Though now on Decca, this was a Philips recording and evinces the problems experienced by their recording team in the Lukaskirche Dresden venue so often in 80's and 90's, resulting in dry poorly balanced orchestral sound, which varies in quality throughout the set in a disconcerting manner.
At times there appear to be a single horn and rather tinny trumpet, and few first violins that are rather scratchy, and at other times the sound is fuller and better-though always dry. This is strange, as so many superb recordings have been made there, well before and after.
When Colin Davis was controversially appointed Music Director of the ROH in 1970 in succession to Solti, he gave an interview advising that he couldn't stand Richard Strauss and wasn't too fond of Wagner, and he has since avoided Strauss and only occasionally dabbled in Wagner with mixed results. In this Wagnerian work, he is happily entirely at home, finding perfect tempi and "bounce" matched by beautiful lyricism when required. A reviewer of the original release comments on his slow tempi -this is nonsense as the tempi are among the swiftest on record, though are never rushed. His cast is generally first rate-Gruberova and Murray, well on in their careers at this stage give surprisingly youthful, winning performances, with Edita's rather nasal tone a bit of a distraction and Murray stealing the show. I prefer less over acting of the "kiddie" effects in the 2 main protagonists, and they just about stay the right side of excess. Grundheber is a rough toned Peter, Gwyneth Jones a fine Stepmother-and Barbara Bonney is an exquisite Sandman.
Christa Ludwig is a magnificent Witch-her occasional Viennese drawl is hilarious, and she relishes the role, which she declared to be her favourite (specifically the Eichorn recording). The set is worth it for this alone.
So, very fine artistically, not the best of recordings. 4 Stars.
Turning to the Runnicles BRSO recording, one enters a different sound world and comfort abounds. From the rich opening horns, through the overture and throughout, the richness, warmth and lustre of this great orchestra is wonderfully caught by the BR Engineers supervised by James Mallinson.
Technically it is the best recording of all, and very fine artistically.
Runnicles is a superb Wagnerian, and his reading, a touch slower and with a "longer line" than most others, is the grandest and most redolent of Wagner himself. This does not mean that charm is sacrificed, but we are more aware of the weight and grandeur of the work in this reading. Jennifer Larmore and Ruth Ziesak are superb, with Larmore's deeper, richer tones providing the perfect contrast to Ziesak's light and floating soprano, and they sing the parts " straight". Weikel is a stolid Peter, Behrens superb as ever, and only Rosemary Joshua's Sandman took some time to enjoy, as she sings with a trill pretty well throughout, but I now like this way of interpretation.
Hanna Schwarz's Witch is formidable, easily the scariest and most sinister and SO well sung! Her " Hocus Pocus" will send chills down your spine, and her Witch's Ride is brilliant, yet another telling performance from this artist.
This set, again now available cheaply, includes the alternative ending composed at the suggestion of Cosima Wagner, and all in all is my top recommendation.
However, the 1979 Solti runs it close, and I'm glad I have them both. The bloom and richness of the Vienna Philharmonic, Solti at his most relaxed and affectionate (there is even rubato!!!) and a mostly peerless cast place it high on any list-however, there are those who find Anny Schlemm's (a singer with whom Solti had worked as far back as his Frankfurt days) over the top whooping Witch a caricature too far, and there is some loss of detail in the analogue recording which could really benefit from a modern re-mastering.
I wouldn't argue with anyone who places it top of their list though!
The fact is that happily, ALL the available recordings are very fine, including Tate, Eichorn, Suitner, Cluytens, Pritchard, Wallberg and Mackerras in English-and of course, Karajan. With regard to the latter, his Mono recording is very fine, but does not eclipse later versions sufficiently to warrant choosing it over its stereo rivals!
This brings us back to-at last-the new Glyndebourne set. The usual live recording caveats apply-there is a lot of clop-clopping in this work-but playing and singing are excellent, especially Alice Coote who can do wrong for me.
I rule it "out of court" because of the casting of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Witch, a kitsch move that turns the character into a sort of malevolent Widow Twankey! No doubt great fun on stage, but it's too exaggerated for repeated listening in my view, and the overall performance is not SO recommendable otherwise.
So to recap, my recommendations are:
Solti/VPO 5 Stars
Davis/Dresden 4 Stars (but worth it for Christa Ludwig)
Tate/BRSO 4 Stars (orchestra a tad dim, Lipovsek a disappointing Witch)
Karajan/Philharmonia 4 Stars-because its Mono and bit too"elegant"
Glyndebourne/LPO 3.5 Stars (though could be more if you like a Drag Act Witch).
Happily, whichever set you have, they are sufficiently good not to warrant rushing to replace it-for first time buyers, Runnicles and Solti top the list.
Hope this helps. Stewart Crowe.