Notes and Editorial Reviews
Sir Colin Davis has rarely conducted a more glowing opera performance on record than this.
Sir Colin Davis has rarely conducted a more glowing opera performance on record than this. It is his inspired direction, beautifully paced, as though captured live, which above all compels attention. His account culminates in a final reference back to the Evening Hymn theme at the very end which, in its soaring crescendo, brings a genuine gulp of fulfilment, such as one experiences in a fine performance in the theatre. None of the other versions not even Karajan's, quite conveys in that key moment such an authentic frisson. Elsewhere, too, Davis's performance has an emotional thrust that has less to do with beautiful singing and
playing than with deeper more tender feelings. On balance the Karajan, Pritchard and Tate versions are all more beautifully, more immaculately sung, but thanks to Davis's understanding and a recorded sound that is both warmly atmospheric and full of presence, with extreme pianissimos refined and clear, the magic of this score has come home to me more involvingly than I have known since the 1953 Karajan set in the days of early mono LPs.
Could Davis and Gruberova know that classic version and have learnt from it? All those listed above have been remarkable for inspired casting in the title-roles, from Grummer and Schwarzkopf for Karajan onwards, with beautiful voices the rule. What has sometimes happened—as at times with von Otter and Bonney for Tate or von Stade and Cotrubas for Pritchard—is that the voices are so beautiful that they are not always distinct from each other. Though in sheer beauty neither Gruberova nor Murray can quite match such rivals, the contrast of timbre between the bright, sometimes edgy quality of Gruberova and the plainer sound of Murray is always very clearly defined, and their brilliant characterization and feeling for words seal that sharp distinction. Gruberova is particularly fine, like Schwarzkopf often adopting a childish timbre, as in Gretel's solo ''Ein Mannlein steht im Walde'' at the beginning of Act 2, which is charmingly delivered on the breath, like a child singing a nursery rhyme to herself. And though under pressure both voices tend to roughen a little, their duets together are ecstatic. The Evening Hymn is raptly done at the gentlest possible pianissimo, and there is tremendous swagger in the pair's celebrations after the witch is dead.
There is comparable casting for both the Mother and the Witch. Dame Gwyneth Jones could not be more positive as the former, cutting through all textures. And though under pressure the voice acquires a characteristic beat, the pitching is always perfectly clear and defined. Predictably Ludwig gives a similarly positive and characterful performance as the Witch. More than most rivals her sinister inflexions are totally convincing and spontaneous-sounding, a naturally larger-than-life figure who puts over both the melodramatic and the comic moments with superb timing. Grunheber as the Father has a better focused voice than most of his rivals on record—Metternich for Karajan the big exception—and the clarity of the recording, coupled with Davis's subtle timing and rhythmic control, makes his first entry from afar particularly effective. Bonney (Gretel for Tate) here becomes the Sandman sweetly expressive, while Christiane Oelze's bright soprano as the Dew Fairy has none of the unpleasant edge of either Lind for Tate or Welting for Pritchard.
When those earlier sets offer such warmly expressive performances with excellent principals—and mono or not, the vintage Karajan remains a very viable contender—the advantages are not all one way. What sets the seal on this new Davis version in the quality of the recording. Where this time I have been less tolerant of the reverberant churchy acoustic for the Pritchard Davis's—recorded in the Lukaskirche in Dresden—has plenty of bloom on voices and orchestra, without the blurring of inner lines that marks not just the Pritchard but, relatively, the Munich-recorded Tate version. More than either the new Philips conveys a sense of presence? with vivid detail captured, as with the triangle in the Overture, and the Dresden horns bray gloriously. Though I confess I was apprehensive about the set when I first saw the cast list, Davis's obvious love for this score as well as many details I have listed, have had me ever-greedy to go on listening, which is the ultimate test of a successful recording.
-- Edward Greenfield, Gramophone [10/1993]
Works on This Recording
Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck
Christiane Oelze (Soprano),
Barbara Bonney (Soprano),
Franz Grundheber (Baritone),
Dame Gwyneth Jones (Soprano),
Christa Ludwig (Mezzo Soprano),
Edita Gruberova (Soprano),
Ann Murray (Mezzo Soprano)
Sir Colin Davis
Written: 1893; Germany
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