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.