Festklänge (Festive Sounds)
Elsa Benoit (soprano), Sarah Romberger (mezzo-soprano)
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Pietari Inkinen
rec. live, 2 December, 2022, SR Sendesaal Saarbrücken, Germany
SWR Classic SWR19131CD [63]

This CD from the Southwest German Radio Corporation is the first of the new crop of holiday music CDs to come across my desk this year. It derives from a live recording last December in the beautifully resonant auditorium of the SWR. The concert entitled “Festive Sounds”, taken from the excerpt from Humperdinck’s Sleeping Beauty, aims to bring together music that is associated with the Christmas holiday but is not necessarily about the Nativity. The inevitably brings the listener excerpts from The Nutcracker and Hänsel und Gretel, so no surprises there. The inclusion of Richard Strauss’ Serenade in E flat major is a bit more puzzling. The accompanying booklet makes absolutely no mention of why it was chosen. This is a work which the 17 year old composer described as being “nothing more than the respectable work of a music student.” It is one of the longer tracks on this disc and provides a congenial interlude from the more commonly heard holiday stuff.

First up is the overture to Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. This is a fine start to the proceedings, as it is a gently luminous account of the popular piece. The sound picture conjured by the radio engineers gets an A minus, chiefly because some of the inner woodwind details are completely obscured by the brass and the strings, causing a few important themes to be missed. Keeping with this opera, a later track offers the Evening Prayer and Dream Pantomime which closes the Second Act. It is sweetly sung by Elsa Benoit and Sarah Romberger. Conductor Pietari Inkinen builds the orchestral tension to the climax of the Pantomine quite impressively; similarly the sparkling fanfares of the excerpt from Humperdinck’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet show off this conductor and the orchestra at their finest.

The march from The Nutcracker is taken at a crisp and lively pace by Inkinen. While the two cradle songs by Max Reger and Richard Strauss gently bring echoes of the Nativity into brief focus during the concert. Elsa Benoit’s Weigenlied is sung tenderly with refulgent tone, while Sarah Romberger’s softly elegant line contributes a Mariä Weigenlied of wide-eyed sincerity. This last piece is sung in an uncredited arrangement which beautifully frames the mezzo voice.

The disc concludes with The Carol Symphony by Victor Hely-Hutchinson. This is longest work on the CD at just over 24 minutes. It is a weighty traversal through five of the more popular Carols of the Christmas Season. The composer develops the themes quite amicably but it often seems to go on just a little too long, and the piece as a whole is not vastly different from any number of orchestral adaptations of Christmas songs. Still, under Inkinen’s baton, the Carol Symphony receives what might well be its best recording, particularly in terms of sound, for those who are curious about it. While this is a live recording applause has only been included after the final track.

Mike Parr

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Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921)
Hänsel und Gretel: Overture, Evening Prayer and Dream Pantomime
Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty): Festklänge (Festive Sounds)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Serenade in E flat major for 13 winds, op. 7
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker: March of the Toy Soldiers
Max Reger (1873-1916)
Mariä Weigenlied
Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947)
A Carol Symphony