PROKOFIEV: Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67; BRITTEN: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34; DUKAS: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Ben Kingsley, narrator/ London Sym. Orch./ Sir Charles Mackerras – Cala CACD 0125, 56:40 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
The demand for children’s music in Soviet Russia produced in 1936 the symphonic tale by Sergei Prokofiev, initially inspired by Natalia Ilyinichna Satz, director of the Moscow Children’s Theater. When the original rhymed couplets by poet Nina Saksonskaya failed to suit the composer, he supplied his own prose text to what amounts to a political allegory, with various instruments’ supplying the animals (or nations) who compete with each other until faced by a common enemy, the Wolf, embodied in the three French horns. The analogy to the various Soviet Socialist Republics and their internal politics, suddenly confronted by a looming Nazi Germany, is not a giant leap of social logic. The distinguished actor Ben Kingsley lends his voice to the now-famous narration, aligning his name with those of the likes of Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Richard Hale, Christopher Lee, and Sean Connery. [You forgot Peter Ustinov and Sophia Loren! On the latter Telarc CD Bill Clinton then narrated Wolf Tracks…Ed.] The late Sir Charles Mackerras (1925-2010) leads a resonant London Symphony in the orchestral part, enjoying the sweet LSO strings for Peter’s character. “Boys like me are not afraid of wolves,” boasts Peter.
Though the Duck (oboe) becomes a victim of the Wolf, swallowed whole, Peter manages to convince the Bird (clarinet in A) to circle the Wolf as a distraction while he lowers a noose to catch the Wolf’s tail. The fluttering invention of the musical figures, along with the potent menace of the French horns and snare drum, provides a suggestively visual drama; and lovers of Prokofiev scores will note several points at which Romeo and Juliet allusions or anticipations occur. With the arrival of the Hunters, Peter and his remaining cronies have enough manpower to transport the Wolf to the zoo. “Imagine, imagine the triumphant procession,” invokes Kingsley. “And what if Peter hadn’t caught the Wolf, what then?” grumbles a guttural Kingsley in the role of the cantankerous Grandfather. “And if we listen very carefully, we can hear the Duck quacking inside the Wolf,” adds our narrator, just to avoid any permanent sense of tragedy.
In 1945, in order to celebrate 250 years of the passing of Henry Purcell, Benjamin Britten designed his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell to introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra, with a narration by Eric Crozier. In its world premier (29 November 1946), the London Symphony had Sir Malcolm Sargent at the podium, and he also provided the narration. Britten took as his stirring march theme the incidental music for the play Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge by Purcell, subjecting the tune to a series of variants that feature individual instrumental choirs or timbres. The agility of the clarinets certainly warrants the price of admission. The deep voices of the bassoons, assisted by a snare, make a distinct impression. With the entry of strings, the music assumes the character of a tango, a kind of homage to the inventiveness of Tchaikovsky, whom Britten admired. The segments devoted to violas and cellos exemplify rich warmth, and even the narration acknowledges “this fine sound.” Kingsley adjusts his voice to suit the temperament of the bass fiddles and then the harp, with its “forty-seven strings and seven foot-pedals,” lustrous in its sweeps, assisted by brass punctuations. The final fugue shows off the sheer adroitness of the LSO’s combined choirs, a mighty revel of integrated contrapuntal sound.
The 1897 Scherzo “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Dukas (after a ballad by Goethe) has always remained popular; but never so much until after the advent of Disney’s Fantasia (1940) [And also Fantasia 2000…Ed.] that sent Mickey Mouse scurrying after his demonized brooms with the assistance of Leopold Stokowski. Some have traced the origin of the tale back to Lucan of Samosata, a Greek second-century satirist. The moral could hardly be more simple: do not play with a master magician’s toys and spells unless fully qualified to do so. Mackerras builds a terrific tension in the piece, rife with every color element, not the least of which is the singularly lively triangle. The combination of manic energy of the enchanted broom and its progeny and the sheer terror of an overwhelmed apprentice becomes frightfully effective with the advent of the horns and cymbals, the layered sound and swirling water in radiant panoply. We seem to hover on the edge of the Abyss when the Master returns to dispel the Witches’ Brew with a single gesture. A whipped and wiser magic-learner returns to his meekly duties, only to receive a slap from Fate itself, in the form of the Beethoven Fifth motto.