Debbie Wiseman was born in London and studied piano and composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She has created an impressive body of work, mainly for film and television, and has been described as Britain’s most prolific and emotionally charged film composer. Certainly, for her age she’s written a large amount of music, from TV series such as The Inspector Lynley Mysteries
and The Upper Hand
to the films Wilde
(which won her an Ivor Novello Award) and Lesbian Vampire Killers
Here we have two of Wilde’s best known fairy tales coupled with two short orchestral interludes. Stephen Fry narrates the story of the Nightingale and the Rose
. This poignant story concerns the efforts of a nightingale to produce a red rose, and she discovers it is possible if she sings the sweetest song all night, and sacrifices her life in doing so.
Vanessa Redgrave tells the story of The Selfish Giant
who owns a beautiful garden in which children love to play. However, he takes offence, and builds a wall to keep the children out and his garden is condemned to perpetual winter. Later, as the children have found a way in through a gap in the wall he finds that spring has returned to the garden. One child in particular is helped by the Giant and one winter morning he sees the trees in one part of his garden in full blossom and lying underneath a white tree, that the Giant has never seen before, he sees the young boy – he does not realize at first that the boy is actually the Christ Child. Shortly afterwards the happy giant dies; that same afternoon his body is found lying under the tree, covered in blossoms.
What we have here are these two stories told against a background of orchestral music. Wiseman’s accompaniment is discreet, suitably apt for the purpose it was written and very beautiful. The only problem I have with it is that the voices and orchestra appear to be in different acoustics and the voice sticks out like a sore thumb over and above the music – there is absolutely no attempt to blend them together. Therefore, instead of the music heightening the tension of the stories by enveloping the voice in a rich cushion of music, the voice seems superimposed on top, and too far in front, of the music.
Things are better in the two short orchestral pieces but even they are recorded too closely, and don’t allow for any space between the listener and the performer.
Redgrave and Fry are perfect story-tellers but their voices grate because of the recording. Also, I found some of the music – such as the end of The Selfish Giant
– to be too perfunctory, some kind of coda is needed to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, the ending offered here seems to have come about simply because the composer laid down her pen.
One final point. Whilst the music is perfectly enjoyable it is all the same and there is little attempt at variety, thus although we hear the nightingale in the first story I feel no elation, no sorrow, I simply don’t care about the characters. The music should have been there to interest me in them, but it didn’t.
Better examples of this storytelling with music can be found in Alan Ridout’s three pieces – Jack and the Beanstalk
and Three Songs by Lewis Carroll
– performed by Richard Baker and the Wessex Quartet (on an old Argo LP ZDSW 706) or John Rutter’s wonderful Brother Heinrich's Christmas
, The Reluctant Dragon
and The Wind in the Willows
performed by Richard Baker and Brian Kay with the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Richard Hickox and John Rutter (Collegium COLCD 115). I imagine that these recordings will attract a child’s interest because of their subtlety.
I see that this CD was a Grammy Award Nominee for best spoken word album, and, no disrespect to Debbie Wiseman, whom I know to be a fine and sensitive composer, perhaps it would have been better as just that – a spoken word album.
This is very pleasant but it just doesn’t do it for me, due to the balance of the recording, the dry acoustic, the rather bland music, and the fact that I don’t care about anyone in the stories. What makes this all doubly worse is that I was so looking forward to this disk and my expectations were high.
Editor’s Note: I have not heard the above CD but, staying with the theme of Wilde stories narrated with music, could I just recommend Roger Payne and Alfred Bradley’s very touching version of The Little Swallow and the Happy Prince. It’s for narrator and brass band and works wonderfully well. The broadcast premiere was given by Robert Powell (narrator) and the Besses of the Barn in July 1982. I am not sure whether it has ever been recorded commercially. RB