Simple gifts - Hansel and Gretel
Like the drawing above by the underground artist Banksy Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is an opera of contradictions. It is the perfect Christmas opera, yet it is set in the Spring. It is the perfect children’s opera, yet it has been described as ‘Wagner for the nursery’ as Humperdinck worked as Wagner’s assistant on Parsifal from 1880-1881. It is the ultimate story of innocence, yet it was recorded, shortly after the horrors of World War II, by artists better known for their experience than innocence. And it is a top seller in the CD catalogue, yet in a market where digital and surround-sound are the norm, the best selling version is a 1953 mono recording.
Englebert Humperdinck was born in Germany. In the 1890s his sister wrote a libretto based on the Grimm fairy tale, and Humperdinck set it to music for the entertainment of his sister’s children. It was later turned into a full-scale opera, and was premiered on December 23rd 1894 in Weimar. Success was immediate with both critics and audiences, and none other than Richard Strauss described it as “a masterwork of the first rank”.
In the early 1950s EMI recording producer Walter Legge was looking for recording projects that would exploit the new long playing record format. The opportunity came to record Hansel and Gretel with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Gretel, Elisabeth Grümmer as Hansel, and with Herbert von Karajan conducting Legge’s own Philharmonia Orchestra. But there were some obstacles, not the least of which was that Karajan had never conducted the work before the recording sessions. This unfamiliarity, coupled with limited rehearsal time, resulted in a performance of freshness and vitality that has never been surpassed. Schwarzkopf remembers the sessions as being semi-improvised, with Karajan constantly surprised by the delights in the score. The photo above shows me talking to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at a Philharmonia concert in 1979.
The story of the recording sessions is a fairy tale itself. The overture used on the commercial release was recorded as a test take to check the orchestra balance, and was judged to be so good that no further takes were needed. Don’t let the mono label put you off, because the sound is staggeringly good on the recent Naxos budget re-issue of this classic recording. What you will hear when the CD transfer is played on a top-end audio system is a salutary reminder that more than half a century of technical developments have done very little to improve the sound actually coming out of the speakers.
The definitive recording of Hansel and Gretel was made in 1953 in London by a German conductor and an English orchestra. In a final contradiction, in December 2006 an English conductor travelled to Berlin to conduct a German orchestra in three semi-staged performances of the opera. The conductor was rising star Mark Elder, and the orchestra was the Berlin Philharmonic, who amazingly had never performed Hansel and Gretel before. And in the perfect Christmas happy ending the critics loved Elder's interpretation, with Anthony Holden writing in the Observer - "Every detail emerged in all its considerable splendour, giving Berliners an authentically German feast they relished."
Now take an Overgrown Path to In memoriam Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
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