Lying in the EMI vaults are many tapes of superb opera recordings made in the 1950s. Herbert von Karajan, prior to his Berlin Philharmonic days, was often engaged to conduct them by the producer, Walter Legge. The recording venue was London's Kingsway Hall - blown to smithereens recently when a bomb that had lodged in the roof during a W W 2 air raid was dislodged.
Amongst these splendid productions, this 1953 recording of "Hänsel und Gretel" has inspired great affection and received many reissues. Early reviewers, writing in the "Record Guide" thought the heroes of the occasion were Elisabeth Grümmer and Herbert von Karajan. Later reviewers have praised Schwarzkopf and Grümmer for their skill at "acting with the voice". Currently this EMI set is still the recommended version of the opera listed in the "Gramophone".
If these are some of the recommendations, are there any cautions? I offer only one. Don't expect 1953 mono recording to deliver the luscious listening experience that modern technology provides.
Listening to the long orchestral introduction to Act Two, you could be excused for thinking that the score was ghost-written by Wagner. In fact the reverse is partly true. In his younger years Humperdinck became strongly influenced and actively associated with Wagner at Bayreuth. Wagner called on his young disciple to help put the finishing touches to "Parsifal".
Humperdinck’s ‘Hänsel and Gretel’, premiered in 1893, is a perfect introduction to listeners who find Wagner too formidable. It was created for a Christmas celebration at the composer’s house and was a family affair since Humperdinck’s sister, Adelheide Wette, wrote the libretto based on Grimm’s fairy tale. A successful performance must, therefore, meld the fairy tale with the strong influence of Wagner. Humperdinck had met the elder composer in 1879 and assisted in the 1880-81 performance of Parsifal in Bayreuth.
Strangely, the opera was the first to be broadcast in Britain, from the stage of the Royal Opera House, in early 1923. In 1931, it was also the first work transmitted from the Metropolitan Opera House.
This performance has, rightly, become legendary for its cast, their performances, the Philharmonia Orchestra’s fine playing and for the delicacy of the conducting of Herbert von Karajan, 1908-1989, in his first ever performance of the work. This reissue, from 2004, marked the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth in Siegburg.
The original mono recording was engineered by Mark Obert-Thorn, b. 1956, and the cast included Elisabeth Grümmer, 1911-86, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, 1915-2006, [married to the producer, Walter Legge, 1906-79] as Hänsel and Gretel, respectively, Josef Metternich, 1915-2005, as Father, Maria von Ilovsay, 1913-87, as Mother, and Else Schüroff, 1898-1961, as the Witch. Anny Felbermayer, b. 1927, sang the roles of both The Sandman and The Dew Fairy. The lost children were sung by the combined forces of the choirs of Loughton High School for Girls and Bancroft’s School.
In his mid-40s, Karajan had not yet developed into the conductor/controller that we know from his recordings and re-recordings of the 1960s-1980s.
The overall balance cannot reproduce modern recordings but it is much better than on the original LPs and earlier CDs. The voices are never submerged by the orchestral playing at even the most Wagnerian moments. The characterisation is what might be expected from these hand-picked soloists and Grümmer and Schwarzkopf sing with child-like simplicity. Schüroff does not overdo the nastiness of the fairy tale Witch, unlike some singers who produce something akin to Mrs Bluebeard. The soloists are captured at the peak of their careers and the Karajan/Philharmonia collaboration rarely created a better performance, especially the woodwind and brass sections. Overall, the word that sums up this performance is ‘relaxed’, not always the description that one would apply to a Karajan recording.
The booklet contains a brief biography of Humperdink, information about the performers and recording engineer, and a synopsis of the opera. Regrettably there are no photographs taken during the recording or of the principles. In a budget priced two-CD set the absence of a libretto cannot really be a surprise and it can be found on the internet.
In a delightful Appendix, brief excerpts from earlier performances are presented, from 1928 [with Conchita Supervia and Ines Maria Ferraris], 1929 [Meta Seinemeyer and Helen Jung], 1935 [Elisabeth Schumann, singing both Hänsel and Gretel, with Ernest Lush at the piano] and 1937 [Gerhard Hüsch].
The DGG set conducted by Fritz Lehmann, 1904-56, also from 1953, lacks the big names that are present on these Naxos discs but is nevertheless a close second choice and is a fitting memorial to a conductor who died in his prime. The excellence of these two recordings probably explains why the opera has not been a priority for recording companies. Strongly recommenced.