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Stephen MCNEFF (b. 1951)
Four Tales from Beatrix Potter, adapted by Adrian Mitchell:

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck for narrator and orchestra (2002) [18:30]
The Tale of Peter Rabbit for narrator and orchestra (2002) [17:58]
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin for narrator, chorus and orchestra (2004) [20:11]
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers for narrator and orchestra (2004) [18:38]
Imelda Staunton (narrator)
BBC Singers
BBC Concert Orchestra/Clark Rundell
rec. Hippodrome, Golders Green; BBC Maida Vale, London, England, 25 June 2002; 25-27 Jan 2005. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10352 [75:37]





The name of Stephen McNeff may not as yet be a particularly familiar one to classical CD buyers. The only other full CD of his music that I've encountered previously is a recording of his novel stage work, Passions, written for and performed by the vocal group, Cantabile. However the growing catalogue of increasingly diverse and substantial works from this 55-year-old composer will doubtless bring him more firmly into the public eye over time, and this new Chandos issue should do his reputation no harm whatsoever. Currently composer-in-residence for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, McNeff has written a significant amount of music for children in recent years, including a number of Beatrix Potter-related productions which are represented on this Chandos CD.

The music has a somewhat unusual background, having begun life as accompaniment for a stage production. A dozen of Beatrix Potter's famous Tales were adapted into three separate dramatisations for the stage within the last decade by Adrian Mitchell, commissioned by and performed at the Unicorn Theatre for Children. The three separate productions featured music by Stephen McNeff with a narrator giving voice to Beatrix Potter herself. Originally written for seven performers who would sing, dance, act and play on the stage, the music from the stage version was adapted and orchestrated by McNeff for Radio 3, and this new recording presents it in the latter format with the BBC Concert Orchestra providing a rich background to the voice of Imelda Staunton, who provides all the necessary vocal acrobatics.

In other words, what was originally a highly visual production has been transformed into a purely sonic experience which is vaguely reminiscent of Peter and the Wolf in terms of its format and presentation. However, comparisons with Prokofiev should be held in check, as the approach is quite different. The Prokofiev piece is much more obviously programmatic, with a memorable instrumental leitmotif for each character. McNeff's approach is to produce programme music which is evocative rather than explicit, and which accompanies and punctuates the narration rather than blending with it; thus, the result isn't quite so overtly tuneful as Prokofiev's music.

The interesting notes in the CD booklet (written by the artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre, Tony Graham) claim that McNeff's music attempts to capture the complexity and nuances of Beatrix Potter's world and to depict the individual foibles of her characters. Whether this is successful or even apparent rather depends, I feel, on the listener; my own impression was that such subtleties would go over the heads of the target audience of children, at least without repeated listening. However, the booklet notes were clearly written by a man who appreciates Beatrix Potter's work, and I agree strongly with his point that Potter does not talk down to children, but rather encourages them to learn by using language that may be beyond them. She presents, in essence, the antithesis of the modern approach of 'dumbing down' for children. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why her little books are so enduringly popular. If McNeff's music is intended to complement that approach, then it is to be applauded.

If the preceding paragraphs present the impression that McNeff's music is challenging or hard to digest, then nothing could be further from the truth; my point is just that the music isn't inherently simplistic or overtly childish. Whilst it certainly isn't memorably tuneful in the way that Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf is, and its songs are unlikely, for the most part, to provoke children to sing along to them, as their melodies are somewhat angular and unpredictable, at least it gives a wide berth to the potential trap of descending into banality. The music is charming, appealing and apt, and is based on just a few themes in each Tale.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, for instance, has a 'pit pat paddle pat' theme, presented initially as a rather over-simplistic song, that recurs whenever Jemima is the centre of attention. The other main element in this Tale is the much more melodically interesting song, 'With my feathery wings...'. The large majority of the music in this Tale is derived from these two elements, but their frequent repetition helps to tie everything together rather than becoming tiresome, and so this particular Tale is a good opener for the CD.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit is much less closely tied to obvious musical themes, with the orchestra being used more to punctuate the action of the exciting chases with appropriately urgent fragments that illustrate the action musically. The Peter Rabbit Tale, though, features some of the best songs in the set: in particular, the rambunctious song of Mr McGregor, performed in an amusingly uncouth Scots accent.

In the next Tale, that of Squirrel Nutkin, the BBC Singers provide a lush choral background to the depiction of squirrels boating across Windermere in autumn, using their tails as sails, to visit the island of the old brown owl. This is one of the musical highlights of the disc, and yet quite a lot of the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is music-less: much of the straight narration is unaccompanied. The Tale of Samuel Whiskers is similar: the music is, for the most part, incidental to the story-telling, and aside from a few simple songs it just provides an appropriate background to the narration. Overall, though, throughout all four Tales, the music is very well written: highly accessible to the listener, very English-sounding, expertly orchestrated and entirely suitable for the action of each story.

So, whilst the music is clearly very important, it is, for the most part, definitely secondary to the story presented by Imelda Staunton. Happily, both adaptation and narration have been handled expertly, and Adrian Mitchell's dramatisation is very faithful to Beatrix Potter's original text. Although I did notice the occasional slight simplification of language, perhaps to modernise it and make it seem less old-fashioned (for example, "on account of those eggs" has become "because of those eggs" in the Jemima Puddle-Duck story, and there are various other similar changes), there are large chunks of text that have not been altered from Potter's original at all. The changes that have been made are sensible rearrangements and modifications that transmute the book sensitively from a story for reading into a story for dramatic telling.

As for the dramatic presentation, Imelda Staunton was an excellent choice. Seen over the Christmas 2005 holiday playing Mother in the BBC's new production of Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, the award-winning actress seems extremely well suited for this narration. This requires the performer to speak, sing and produce a wide range of voices and accents; not to mention some very realistic cat miaou sounds in a couple of places! Although Imelda Staunton may not have the world's most spectacular singing voice, her vocal range is wide, her command of accents (including feline) impressive and her speaking voice clear and pleasant. She imbues the characters with great vitality and verve, and provides ample excitement and enthusiasm without overstating her contribution. This is with the possible exception of some occasionally high and squeaky songs for squirrels and kittens. In other words, she gets the balance just right and thus provides an engaging performance.

Overall, then, this disc comes across as a high-quality production from all points of view. The CD itself comes very attractively packaged in a regular jewel case within a cardboard slip-case, necessitated by the size of the accompanying booklet which gives the entire text in three languages. The front cover has been designed in an appropriately Potterian style, with one of Beatrix's charming pictures of Peter Rabbit on the front. It did strike me as rather curious that this front picture should have come from the Tale of Benjamin Bunny, which is not one of the stories presented on the CD, but it's an attractive picture of Peter in his little blue jacket, and that's clearly what matters!

So, this is a most entertaining CD for lovers of Beatrix Potter's stories. However, although the music and overall performances can certainly be enjoyed by grown-ups, it isn't the sort of disc that the average adult would buy for personal amusement; it's definitely aimed at children, and the repetitive nature of some of the songs - particularly Jemima Puddle-Duck's pit-pat-paddle-pat song - may make them seem tiresome to older listeners. But for what it is, it's charming. If your child loves Beatrix Potter, or has grown tired of Peter and the Wolf, look no further!

Richard Hallas





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