Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf

A performance of Prokofiev's colourful introduction to the orchestral palette which suffers from unwonted revisionism

Author: 
Ivan March

Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf

  • Peter and the Wolf
  • (Le) Carnaval des animaux, 'Carnival of the Animals'
  • (The) Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

This Peter and the Wolf - the disc's raison d'etre - is somewhat controversial. Lenny Henry's colloquial narration is eager and involving. Children will certainly respond to his array of different 'voices' for the characters in the tale. His additional enthusiastic vocalisations certainly communicate vividly, with a great gulp when the poor duck is swallowed alive, while the wolf 'snaps' furiously, and he sounds really ferocious when finally lassoed. The orchestral accompaniment is alive and well paced following the narrative closely, while portraying the closing procession very grandly.
Alas, the record's producer was not content with Prokofiev's inspired instrumental characterisation for each of the characters in the tale. Mercifully, Peter stays with the strings; but instead of a flute, the bird is portrayed by an ancient Chinese harmonica, the duck is a Catalan tiple, producing a singularly unattractive squeal - a bit like a soprano saxophone with virtually no timbre at all. Even more outrageously the wolf is represented by three accordions, which are totally ineffective; and worst of all the wonderfully feline clarinet with which Prokofiev portrayed the cat is abandoned in favour of the oboe d'amore. The only really effective change is the use of a renaissance serpent to personify grandfather. Within the narrative itself the composer's carefully balanced orchestration is thrown awry by the various squawks from the intruders.
Peter and the Wolf was designed by Prokofiev to introduce young listeners to the orchestral palette, and the dumbing down here robs his score of this primary purpose, as well as almost all its elegance and much of its wit. May I recommend instead Dame Edna on Naxos, which is listener-friendly in every sense, yet her vivid accompaniment, from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under John Lanchbery, retains all the sophistication and colour of the composer's original conception.
Libor Pesek and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra give a brilliantly detailed and highly enjoyable account of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, with a boldly etched closing fugue, and the Nash Ensemble's chamber version of the Carnival of the Animals (Ian Hobson and Susan Tomes the unnamed pianists), sparkles from beginning to end, even if the piano tone initially seems a bit hard. But this disc will either succeed or fail for you on your response to Peter and the Wolf.'

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