Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel (in English)

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Humperdinck
WORKS: Hänsel und Gretel (in English)
PERFORMER: Heidi Grant Murphy, Suzannne Mentzer, Judith Forst, Janice Taylor, Robert Orth, Anna Christy; Milwaukee SO/Andreas Delfs
Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel began life as a simple setting of four nursery rhymes, expanded into a modest Singspiel first performed at the house of his sister. Since its first recording, in 1953, by Karajan, with a cast including Elisabeth Grümmer and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – convincing as the undernourished children – the opera has been done many times with stars even in the minor roles. This much-loved recording was a historical landmark, but it would be sentimental to pretend that it has not been surpassed. The orchestral playing (the Philharmonia) is second-rate, the recorded sound boxy (Mark Obert-Thorn’s Naxos transfer rectifies certain jarring inequalities but loses a little of the original’s string sheen) and the casting variable: Josef Metternich’s Father is under-characterised, while Anny Felbermayer’s insecure Sandman and Dew Fairy are no match for the Popps and Schäfers heard on later recordings. Andreas Delfs was smitten by the work at the age of six and his recording, affectionately and skilfully conducted for Avie, recreates something of the homely charm of the original inspiration. It’s excellent to have it in English, but you’ll need a tooth as sweet as the children’s to appreciate this all-American, cherry-pie rendition. For my taste the crooning of Suzanne Mentzer and Heidi Grant Murphy is toe-curlingly saccharine, though their voices are well contrasted and convincingly childlike. Judith Forst’s Witch eschews conventional cackling in favour of a stern maiden aunt persona. Janice Taylor’s life-weary Mother is poignant and Robert Orth’s Father offers a volatile mix of bonhomie and quick temper. Anna Christy’s Sandman and Dew Fairy are bright and appealing. The recordings of Georg Solti (Decca) and Jeffrey Tate (EMI) both have sterling virtues, but in the absence of Donald Runnicles (Teldec) from the catalogue, my recommendation would be for Kurt Eichhorn’s superbly conducted version, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Christa Ludwig peerless as the Father and Witch. Barry Millington