DEBUSSY: The Toy Box; POULENC: The Story of Babar – Ken Beachler, narrator/ Sergei Kvitko, piano – Blue Griffin 219, [Distr. by Albany] 52:27 ****:
La boite a joujoux, a ballet for piano, was written in 1913. Debussy never intended for it to be anything more than an entertainment for children, though one wonders today how well it all goes down in this mechanistic, super-high-technology age. In fact, one might wonder how well it all went down then as well, as the music nearly begs for more than piano and narrator, crying out for puppets or some other type of visual aid. Though the music is quite adroit and clever, with its colorful effects more akin to the imaginations of adults than children, it still doesn’t quite have the resonating “umph” needed to completely convince. Perhaps that is why the composer began orchestrating it the very next year, this variant on the Pulcinella story, where a soldier falls in love with a doll, fights Pulcinella, and the doll nurses him, now wounded, back to life and happiness. Andre Caplet, who worked on much of Debussy’s music, finished the orchestration for him, and I have come to prefer it that way, sans storyline and everything else, though this is very well done. Check out Jean Martinon’s super-cheap EMI recording.
The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, is author Jean de Brunhof’s most famous work, and it is hard to believe that the stories have had such amazing staying power since first appearing in 1931, the fruits of bedtime stories created for his children and read to them by his wife. Generations now have adored these books, and they seem immune to stereotyping according to age and culture, reflecting universal sentiments. Poulenc obviously thought enough of them to set them to music after his five-year-old niece got tired of the composer’s piano improvisations and instead suggested that he play this—the Babar story. It works far better than the Debussy, with Poulenc’s music far more easily discernible and descriptive to the imagination.
I cannot imagine better performances, and in fact you can find these on YouTube if you so choose to inquire. Mr. Beachler has that classic “FM voice”, and Mr. Kvitko’s crisp and alert playing captures all the nuances and effects that the music has to offer. This might just fill a gap in many collections, and have entertainment value outside a lone listening session as well. Blue Griffin offers another recording in brilliant and superbly resonant sound.
French Romantic and Impressionism… Ivan Ilich