Once upon a time - Children’s tales for piano and narrator
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) The Story of Babar (1940) [27:00]
Richard WILSON (b.1941) A Child’s London (1984) [8:22]
Soulima STRAVINSKY (1910-1994) Three Fairy Tales (1976) [24:05]
Henri BARRAUD (b.1900) Histoires pour les Enfants (1930) [7:29]
Haskell Smith (piano); Robert Aubry Davis (narrator)
rec. St Peter’s Historic Church, New York City, July 1998
ONGAKU RECORDS 024-114 CD [66:56]

I cannot imagine a time when children will cease to respond to the power of a story simply told by a single narrator. Parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents all know the immense shared enjoyment that this can give. Funny voices, strange rhymes and the use of repeated passages can all play their part effectively. That said, few, even amongst musicians, are able to emulate the oft-repeated claim that Poulenc originally improvised “L’histoire de Babar” when the niece of a friend put Jean de Brunhoff’s book on the piano and asked him to play it. Maybe this isn’t true, but I am convinced that to be effective a performance of the work needs above all to sound spontaneous. This is perhaps the main problem with the present disc. The narration in particular is plodding and too knowing in tone, and the piano part is played in an accurate but wholly unimaginative way. I have not been able to make the experiment but find it hard to imagine a child sitting still for more than the first few minutes of what seems in this performance an interminable tale.

This is a great pity, as discs of stories with piano are not exactly thick on the ground. Even the Poulenc is not recorded very often, and when it is it is usually in the orchestral version arranged by Jean Francaix. It can be very effective - and in my experience even if read in the original language as an aid to French lessons - but it does rely very much on both performers making much more of it. I understand that Mr Davis is known in the United States for his radio programmes about early music and singer-songwriters. I have heard none of them, but I must admit to finding his tone of voice unconvincing as a teller of children’s stories. I got used to his adenoidal accent fairly quickly but there always seemed to be something patronising about his narrations rather than relying on simple sincerity or outright theatricality, either of which would be more effective. Haskell Smith, the pianist, plays well and is recorded cleanly but there remains something too literal and studied about his approach which again tends to reduce the impact of the piece as a whole.

The other three items are interesting but do not amount to much by comparison with the Poulenc. Richard Wilson is a former pupil of Randall Thompson and is now Professor of Music at Vassar. His short set of six pieces was written for his daughter’s piano lessons when she was eight. They are pleasant but instantly forgettable as is the linking fanciful but uninteresting narrative of a child’s visit to London. The pieces by Soulima Stravinsky and Henri Barraud are both essentially sets of piano pieces, each preceded by its title read by Mr Davis. They too are pleasant and, especially the Soulima Stravinsky, they do stick in the memory more and are worth hearing more than once. Whether they are sufficient reason in themselves to purchase the disc remains doubtful unless, that is, you are a fan of either of the artists. The field remains open for a really satisfying recording of the Poulenc - perhaps as a DVD with the original pictures.

John Sheppard