PROKOFIEV Peter and the Wolf; Symphony No 1
Sting makes his entrance nonchalantly whistling Peter's theme—which was definitely not Sir John Gielgud's style (Virgin Classics). But this is 1991 where a storyteller's personality counts for rather more than exemplary enunciation and the charm of an undertaker (I can't see any modern child buying the chilly Gielgud approach nowadays). Sting is friendly, he is likeable, he is the boy next door—just like Peter, in fact. He's a clever actor, too, with good ideas, sharp instincts, humour (street-wise—never patronizing) and a good line in character voices: his cat can curl words into an insinuating ''miaow'', grandfather is a bluff northerner grumbling on about the lack of respect in kids today. Best of all, Sting really keeps the story on the boil: even I sat up sharply when Peter shouted his warning to the bird; the duck's demise and the wolf's baiting will be anxious moments for the uninitiated.
Few amendments are made to the standard—and somewhat archaic—text (I'm not too sure about the lines: ''the wolf, in his haste and with a fortunate lack of decorum, had swallowed her alive''!), but few are necessary—the musical storytelling has rarely been better. Abbado and his splendid young COE players dust down and spruce up the old familiar motifs: Peter has such a spring in his step, the cat duly slinks, the wolf's prowling horns are craggy and mean, and timpani for once do go off like the gun shots they represent. There is urgency, there is tension, and what a difference Abbado's refined ear for dynamic nuance makes to the light and shade of the proceedings. It's the deftness of detailing that one remembers above all: the touch of shadowy pathos conveyed, for instance, in the bars following the duck's demise—a real lump-in-the-throat moment.
And when the youngsters are safely in bed, or even before, there is plenty more here to relish. Abbado's account of the Classical Symphony seems to me to make all the right choices at all the right tempos. His first movement, the right side of measured, is dapper in the best sense and marked by keen detailing in the fugal development: note the clinching flourish in the timpani line—an exciting touch which I cannot previously remember hearing. Everywhere is elegance and rhythmic grace. Abbado's strings tread air through the larghetto, the finale is indeed molto vivace with quicksilver articulation from the COE woodwinds, chortling and darting in and around the barlines. The Overture on Hebrew Themes, given here in the modest 1934 orchestration, is softer grained, less earthily acerbic, than I remember it sounding in the original scoring for clarinet, piano, and string quartet. Abbado particularly enjoys the generosity of extra strings in the lush second theme. Last but not least, the spry March in B flat is a wartime novelty which seems to scent victory: it's a little like Kije's Wedding march with a twist from a certain Three Oranges. I should like to hear it in its military band guise, but this will do nicely for now.'