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Stephen BARLOW (b.1954)
The Rainbow Bear (1998-99)
Words by Michael Morpurgo (b.1943)
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Peter and the Wolf – Symphonic Fairy Tale Op.67 (1936)
Joanna Lumley (narrator)
English Northern Philharmonia/Stephen Barlow
Recorded at Leeds Town Hall, July 1999
SANCTUARY CD RSN 3041 [66.58]


The Rainbow Bear is a 1998-99 collaboration between conductor and composer Stephen Barlow and the Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo. Naturally it makes a perfect disc mate for Peter and the Wolf, with which it’s here coupled, and both are narrated by Barlow’s wife, Joanna Lumley. Released with a children’s audience very much in mind ("file under Children’s Music" is on the back of the jewel case) and with notes that are accordingly pitched at a younger age range Barlow’s composition still has things to say to an adult audience. The bear – an inspiration derived from the author seeing on television polar bears swimming – dreams of becoming drenched in the colours of the rainbow. The tribulations that follow this attempt to become something one is not are the spine of the story.

Barlow has responded to the text with directness but also sympathy. Narration and music are compact and concise. From the chuggy trumpets and percussion of the Fanfare we feel in confidently etched hands. There are some touches of Britten in the horn writing of the second track I am snow bear and moments of Waltonian lustre fuse with John Barry lyricism. As with Peter, Barlow has characterised animals and scenes by assigning an instrument to represent them but he’s equally not afraid to pare his music down. Parts of Sea bear (track 5) are Francophile in their clarity and there’s a touch of Les Six in the cleansing wind writing. Drama of course is here – the terse repetitious drive of Starvation – and in the splendid Shaman music (track 10) we hear in effect a mini two and a half minute concert piece of unmistakable Englishness; shades of Bliss’s Blow Meditations and plenty of radiant music richly redolent of VW and a touch of Wagner. Other influences might include Strauss (in track 21) and in the triumphant finale more than a hint of John Barry’s luxurious film music for Out of Africa.

As with Peter and the Wolf Joanna Lumley recites with clarity and a hint of understatement, the better to reach across to the listener without mediating his responses. The latter is deftly done, and the English Northern Philharmonia’s principals have a fine time. Maybe it lacks a little in sheer characterisation and zest but it makes for a very appropriate coupling.

Jonathan Woolf

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