PROKOFIEV Peter and The Wolf RAWSTHORNE Practical Cats
>Presenter, actor and singer Alexander Armstrong is probably best known to children as the voice of CBBC’s Danger Mouse, and he proves an excellent narrator on this new version of Peter and the Wolf, coupled with two further works aimed at young listeners. His way with Prokofiev’s symphonic fairy tale is comparatively straightforward. A few gruff tones for grandfather apart, he avoids ‘voices’ for the characters. There’s no hogging of any limelight, and he knows when to hold back and let the music speak – and speak it certainly does in one of its finest performances on disc, from Vassily Petrenko and the RLPO. The solos are all scrupulously characterised – the bird slightly showy, the cat very slinky, the duck at once funny and pathetic. There are some lovely touches of emotional detail such as the gentle surge of affection in the strings when Peter encounters the bird, and adult listeners will admire the way Petrenko allows the music to pivot between the Classical Symphony and the later ballets.
Its companion pieces are Carnival of the Animals, with Ogden Nash’s narration written for Noel Coward in 1949, and Alan Rawsthorne’s 1954 ‘entertainment for speaker and orchestra’, derived from TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and commissioned for a children’s concert at the Edinburgh Festival. I’ve never been fully convinced by Nash’s Carnival, where the knowing irony of the verse and the fantasy of the music sometime seem at odds, but Armstrong delivers the text with tongue-in-cheek grace, and pianists Richard Casey and Ian Buckle join forces with a group of RLPO soloists for a performance that is very stylish indeed.
Despite its genesis, meanwhile, Practical Cats is arguably less successful than its companions as a work for children, largely because Rawsthorne’s idiom, ambivalently glancing at British musical tradition from Elgar to Walton, lacks Prokofiev’s melodic immediacy and Saint-Saëns’s instrumental magic. It does, however, bring out Armstrong’s finest instincts as both actor and musician. He sounds palpably delighted to be speaking verse by one of the great poets and his unforced way with Rawsthorne’s rhythmic declamation is consistently engaging. Petrenko and the RLPO have fun with it, too. There’s plenty of louche swagger as Gus: the Theatre Cat recounts past histrionic glories, and some fine Elgarian parody when Bustopher Jones: the Cat About Town takes us on his grand tour of London. The accompanying booklet only provides the text for Peter and the Wolf, meanwhile, though it includes some wonderful illustrations, by Paul Marc Mitchell, of Saint-Saëns’s animals and Rawsthorne’s cats, which children – and more than a few adults – will love.