Like my friend and provider of several previous excellent reviews of recordings of this opera, Stewart Crowe, I am smitten by this work and am familiar with the dozen studio versions, many of which have so many virtues that choice between them is very difficult; I have solved that problem by acquiring almost every one I can find, making exceptions only of the three recordings in English, one weak, vintage studio recording conducted by Lehmann, redeemed only by Rita Streich's contribution as Gretel, and the studio recordings conducted by Suitner and Davis respectively in 1969 and 1992, who have voices in their casts for which I have no affection. The English versions are no doubt very good but I want the authentic late 19C German Romantic experience in the original language, with its somewhat sentimentalised, family-friendly redemption of the children, all of whom are brought back to life. (Question: as that miserable old grump of a critic Eduard Hanslick first pointed out, why does the witch Rosina Leckermaul just turn all the children she has captured into gingerbread figures to serve as a fence for her cottage instead of eating them? Never mind.)
Otherwise, I cannot see any reason to choose anything other than one of the half dozen best studio recordings. The Cluytens is one of those for his fluid, affectionate conducting and he has one of the most idiomatic casts; Karajan, too, is of course a superb here, as are the Philharmonia, but it's inescapably in mono being from 1953; Pritchard has the starriest assembly of singers but conducts too stolidly, without lift; both Solti and Runnicles adopt the grand, Wagnerian manner and have superb but rather mature-sounding siblings, and the latter is in the best sound; Wallberg is hors concours in that he employs children to sing the lead voices which pays dividends for me in emotive impact but disappoints some who want a more "operatic" affect from the singers. My overall favourite so far remains the 1971 studio recording from Kurt Eichhorn on Eurodisc and BMG-RCA, which seems to me to offer the best combination of sound, cast and conducting ( see my review) - and he has a splendid witch in Christa Ludwig.
So how does the recently late Jeffrey Tate measure up here in this recording from 1989? His brother and sister are lovely, especially for Bonney's predictably silvery, charming Gretel. I sometimes find Anne-Sofie Otter a tad bland but she is a very convincing Hänsel, her darker tone contrasting nicely but still blending with Bonney, Hanna Schwarz is characterful but a bit screechy as Mother and the young Andreas Schmidt makes a youthful, attractively toned Father before the premature decline in his baritone set in.There is something too sensual In Barbara Hendricks' smoky soprano to make her an ideal Sandman and Eva Lind is adequate if ordinary as the Dew Fairy; Eichhorn's Arleen Augér and Lucia Popp are magical in comparison. Marjana Lipovšek is fine as the Witch, without being especially memorable but she doesn't wobble like Solti's Anny Schlemm or sound unsteady like Cluytens' Elisabeth Höngen, even if she doesn't captivate like Ludwig or Söderström. Tate's direction strikes me as flawless, although for some reason the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra comes across as slightly dim. Having the Tölzer Knabenchor on hand can only be a bonus - and of course they are lovely.
In other words, this is yet another highly recommendable version. In my head, the best one would have Pritchard's or Eichhorn's siblings, Eichhorn's parents, fairies and his or Karajan's conducting and Runnicles' sound, with Solti in reserve - but given the preponderant naming of Eichhorn in that list, that recording remains my top recommendation.
Was in two minds as to weather to buy the highlights or full opera, but glad I made this choice. I was blown away!! It is a lovely piece of music, well written and paced with much memorable music. The singing is superb, the lead voices balance and blend well and there is a warm accompaniment from the orchestra. Have listened to it frequently and continue to enjoy. My one quibble would be that near the beginning someone was 'let loose' with the panning fader, trying to create, I imagine, movement for the characters. It unfortunately creates it for the orchestra which is a little disconcerting, but it does not happen for long or again. Well worth buying.