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A 5 Star Recommendation is only prevented by cost versus competition!,
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This review is from: Humperdinck: Konigskinder [Oehms Classics: OC943] (Audio CD)
The opera Königskinder, best but not strictly accurately translated as " The Royal Children," is probably the only other work by Humperdinck that can be called to mind by most collectors after Hansel und Gretel and in recent years there has been a spate of revivals especially in Germany as the quest for neglected masterpieces continues.
The plot is yet another "charming" folk tale from the Brothers Grimm which we know as "The Goose Girl" and involves a witch who lives in an enchanted forest who has enslaved a kidnapped princess whom she forces to tend her geese while training her as an apprentice witch.
The usual confused prince who is wandering incognito fetches up and falls for the heroine who has to reject him because of the spell. The prince takes this as personal rejection, and leaves in the huff after giving the Goose Girl his crown. (Don't ask-it is a fairy tale).
The witch uncovers this and forces the heroine to bake an enchanted loaf of death!
A lot of shenanigans take place-but the nub of it is that the re-united couple are rejected as King and Queen of Hellabrunn because they promise to treat their subjects with respect and not tax them heavily, misjudging that what their potential subjects really want is serfdom and oppression, and they are driven out to wander in misery eventually ending up back at the witch's cottage-she's been burnt at the stake by the happy townsfolk of Hellabrunn-and as they are starving, eat a mouldy loaf that they find-which is of course the dreaded loaf of death, whereupon they sink into an ecstatic endless sleep, united in love and death (sound familiar?) and are buried by a kindly minstrel!
This plot actually makes Tristan und Isolde seem like a "romcom."
I've left out a whole raft of characters that complicate the plot, and there is splendid brawl over a supposed unpaid tavern bill (the prince really is a twit) reminiscent of Die Meistersinger, and it has the makings of a really red-blooded drama-but sadly in this work they remain makings!
The problem is that Humperdinck tries to recreate the charm of the earlier Hansel und Gretel, and although the style may be described as post- Wagnerian, there is none of the intensity of Wagner's music. Worse than this is the whole score, though charming, is at best inoffensive and at worst anodyne and unmemorable. He indulges throughout in what Richard Strauss described as "note spinning" and weaves a luxurious carpet of unresolved melodic invention. Putting it simply, there are no decent tunes!
However, there is obviously a constituency for this work, and on a certain level it is enjoyable enough-certainly preferable to some of the modern fayre that is served up to a gullible public, and this new recording goes a fair way in doing it justice.
Recorded live in 2011, it is well recorded, beautifully played with rich sonorous tones, engagingly conducted by Sebastian Weigle as ever from this source-and is almost unbelievably well sung by a cast of singers totally unknown to me.
Julia Juon sings an almost too beautiful Witch-and she is abetted by Humperdinck's writing which is not dark enough for the work itself, and she is joined in the opening duet by an exquisitely sung Goose Girl in Amanda Majeski, a beautiful lyric soprano with bell like top notes and utterly secure legato. She would be a perfect Gretel, Sophie and even an Eva in Meistersinger.
Her Prince is Daniel Biehn, who has a slightly nasal but pleasing light tenor in the German mode-not a Heldentenor (admirers of Klaus Florian Vogt please note!)-but in the current climate no doubt it will not be long before he is singing Lohengrin and Siegmund! He is very fine, and the "would be lovers" are a very attractive pairing and within the limits of the work a pleasure to listen to.
Indeed, this applies to the whole cast, and as I have noted from past recordings from this venue, the "home team" of this house should be the envy of many nominally more illustrious names.
So, a work that is of interest to many, and I acknowledge that there are those who enjoy it more than I, such that a firm recommendation would seem to be in order for this beautifully played and sung version, which is certainly the best recorded.
There are two snags-the cost and the competition. This 3 disc set, beautifully presented but with the libretto only in German, is very expensive and the alternatives are much cheaper and have their very strong points.
There is an early Jonas Kaufmann recording superbly conducted in decent sound by Armin Jordan but with a less than accomplished orchestra and a variable supporting cast, and a classic Electrola recording under the ever reliable Heinz Wallberg and starring Helen Donath at her best and Alfred Dallapozza as the most elegant and accomplished Prince, and has a supporting cast of excellent quality for about a 3rd of the cost of this set currently. The remastered sound is warm and detailed and it is to this set that I would turn for those exploring this work anew.
Devotees for whom price is no obstacle can add this set to their collection with joy and enthusiasm, for it is arguably the best overall performance, Kaufmann and Donath notwithstanding elsewhere!
5 Stars for artistic and technical quality, 3 stars for comparative value-4 stars overall. Stewart Crowe.