DOUBLE PLAY / Sweet dreams for cold nights: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on new releases of opera and chamber music

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The Independent Culture
Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel - Staatskapelle Dresden / Davis (Philips 438 013-2; two CDs)

BURNISHED horns peep over the horizon, a rosy dawn breaks once more in Humperdinck's orchestra. Sleep ends, the dream begins. It's a second childhood for most of us: the enchanted forest, the Sandman, the Gingerbread House, the Witch - the dark side of the moon. Magical tales are told in Humperdinck's dappled orchestrations and Colin Davis's Dresden players - all benevolence and subtle blending - don't miss a nuance.

Where the grisly polka of the Witch's Ride dissolves into the greeny-blues of the darkening forest, Davis ensures you see the transformation scene. The Dream Pantomime (all sweet dreams begin here) brings magical pianissimi and the mellowest brass tones. But where this set really scores is with its pint-sized hero and heroine. Ann Murray and Edita Gruberova make it all sound like child's play - the flattened pitch, the sparing vibrato, the deliciously wide- eyed vowels. A long way from the 'Janet and John' school of child impersonation that we sometimes get.

Mother is Dame Gwyneth 'Brunnhilde' Jones, indomitable in manner and vibrato, but not without her cosy streak. And there's even a touch of cosiness in Christa Ludwig's gleeful Nibblewitch, ripely sung through the text, words relished like tasty prime-cuts of you-know-what and with a cackle to excite central casting. ES

'Tireli]' - 'Hopsasa]' - Wagner plus children's ditties; Babes in the Wood in Lederhosen. It doesn't sound much like a recipe for a century-long success, and yet Humperdinck's unlikely blending has resulted in a strangely enduring kind of magic. Hearts hardened to The Little Sweep or Amahl and the Night Visitors (they have my sympathy) often find their defences collapsing before this warm tide of full- hearted, richly inventive fantasy. A lot depends on the performance of course, but Davis and his team seem to me to have struck a near-ideal balance between enchantment and hints of things stirring in the undergrowth. Gruberova (Gretel) and Murray (Hansel, the short-trouser role) are both very effective child impersonators, but they catch the adult nuances too. Too much whipped cream smothers the more interesting tastes - not here.

The unity of approach is striking. The orchestra plays with plenty of affection, but the fruity Dresden brass add piquancy, as does the crisp, strong-toned singing of the Staatsoper Children's Choir (no pallid Anglican purity here). The grown-up parts are fine too. Franz Grundheber and Gwyneth Jones are much more than pasteboard parents; Barbara Bonney is a delicious Sandman, and Christa Ludwig is a sensational Witch - bite your gingerbread head off as soon as look at you, no messing. SJ

Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas; Schumann: Fantasy Pieces - Cohen, Ashkenazy (Decca 430 149-2)

BRAHMS and the clarinet found each other at precisely the right time. It's the instrument of autumn, of evenings closing in too quickly. With its broody bottom register and yearning top, it's the soft, still voice of nostalgia. To quote Brahms himself, 'even one listener is too many' as the F minor Sonata draws you into its confidence: the sound of Franklin Cohen's breathing is almost an intrusion upon the intimacies of the andante. Decca takes us in close, and Cohen takes us away with some beautifully withdrawn half-lights. The heavenly melody, 'discovered' in full bloom at the start of the E flat major Sonata, is typical of the stream of melodic consciousness that carries this music forward. For Cohen and Ashkenazy, it's always a case of go with the flow. I felt easy in their company. ES

HAVING heard both the Brahms sonatas treated as display pieces by pushy young clarinettists far too often, it's a delight to find in Franklin Cohen a player who sees the connection with the spirit of the late solo piano pieces - subtle autumnal colours, tenderness and confidential sadness.

If Cohen had found a pianist equally inclined to the soft, gentle and low approach, this could have been a lovely, if somewhat rarefied, disc. Ashkenazy, however, is a much more zestful, ardent Brahmsian, relishing those long, soaring lines that soar through page after page. Both are valid ways of looking at this music - but not at the same time. SJ

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