Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) La Boîte à joujoux (The Toy Box) [27:33]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) L’Histoire de Babar (The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant) [24:54]
Ken Beachler (narrator); Sergei Kvitko (piano)
rec. Blue Griffin’s Studio The Ballroom, Lansing, MI, 27-28 September 2010

Although it is played and recorded very occasionally either as a piano solo or in the orchestral arrangement (largely by Caplet), La Boite à joujoux remains very much on the fringe of the composer’s works. It was written to a scenario by André Hellé in its piano form in 1913, and first performed as a ballet in 1919. The story concerns three toys – a soldier, a doll and a Punchinello. The music is very closely linked to the plot, and can seem very thin when heard without it. There is, therefore, a good argument for performing it as a narrative with the piano version. Before writing this review I had never had occasion to look at the published score (Durand) but I am very glad to have done so. It is handsomely illustrated with coloured pictures by Hellé and includes the scenario alongside the music, and in one case as a footnote to it. On this disc Ken Beachler recites most of this scenario (and the footnote) in English at the appropriate moments. However almost inevitably that means speech taking place over the music, which tends to mean that one or the other becomes secondary. In addition, text that is appropriate for a ballet scenario is not necessarily so for a spoken narration, and the result is simply a very flat tale, rather flatly told and unlikely to be of real interest to children or adults. Frankly I found myself bored for much of the time. I suspect that it might work as a textless cartoon film, based on the published drawings, but in the present form it remains a curiosity rather than anything more.

What a change when we turn to Poulenc’s much better known work! It was written for narrator and piano so that the text and music are much better intertwined and the text is inherently of greater interest. Here too Ken Beacher displays a real ability to tell a story in an interesting way, without exaggeration but with humour and variety of pace. Similarly the playing of Sergei Kvitko, efficient but uninteresting in the Debussy, springs to life in an affectionate and pointed performance of the piano part. Any remaining boredom I felt from the Debussy was immediately removed as the performance engaged me. Children’s reactions are notoriously unpredictable but I would expect this to be much more to their taste than the Debussy.

If your main interest is the Poulenc this might well be a very good choice, but if it is the Debussy that particularly catches your eye it might be better to look elsewhere – or to obtain a copy of the illustrated score and a recording of the piano part without narration.

John Sheppard

If your main interest is the Poulenc this might well be a very good choice.