Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Peter and the Wolf Ė a musical tale for children, Op.67 (1936) [27:45]
Symphony No.1 in D major, Classical, Op.25 (1917) [14:12]
Violin Concerto No.1 in D major, Op.19 (1917) [21:08]
Hu Kun (violin), Christopher Lee (narrator)
English Chamber Orchestra/Yehudi Menuhin
rec. May 1989, Leominster Priory
NIMBUS NI 5192[63:21]

Peter and the Wolf, Prokofievís evergreen childrenís classic, never loses its charm and appeal. It is truly a tale ďfor children young and oldĒ. The story is simple, and we know that all will end well, yet every time it stirs the imagination. As you probably know, each character is represented by a theme and a musical instrument, and so the young listeners learn the different orchestral voices. The coupling with the much more modern Violin Concerto No.1 is not very intuitive: what is the supposed audience for this disc? Putting Peter and the Wolf with Saint-SaŽnsí Carnival of Animals and Brittenís Young Personís Guide to the Orchestra would have been more natural. I used to like the recording by Eugene Ormandy on Sony, in exactly this combination, but when I returned to it after hearing Menuhin, it seemed tame and too civilized in comparison.

Christopher Lee is a narrator par excellence, though his voice is too recognizable to avoid associations with his other roles. Anyway, he knows how to hold the listenerís attention. The orchestra plays with all the heart and the music blossoms. The tempi and the dynamics are alive and flexible, and there is vivid enthusiasm. The Wolfís music is indeed scary, with Wagnerian undertones. I donít remember ever having such a feeling with other performances. The ferocious joy of the huntersí march, their rumbling shots, Peterís carefree bravery, the panic of the Duck and the excitement of the Bird Ė everything is so embossed. The pomp of the triumphal procession will keep you stomping your feet. The recording is generously spacious.

The Classical Symphony is a unique creation. The form might be inherited from Haydn, but the contents are fresh and modern. There exist recordings that sound lighter and crisp; some are more swift and mercurial. This one has more power; its colors are deeper. Menuhin presents it as a genuine, full-scale symphony, not just a cool curiosity. Do not worry: he does not make it deadly serious! All the fun is there, and it is in fact more pronounced, due to the stronger accents he applies.

The first movement has the drive of a rolling train. Yet this is a festive train that shines and glitters, with sparkling gold and party crackers! The tuttis sound like elephants blaring happily. The slow movement is very Haydnesque, its character cheerful yet calm. It is marked Larghetto, but Menuhin takes it as an Andante. In this way it receives more urgency and some mild tongue-in-cheek feeling. The Gavotte is weird and charming. The reading is not hurried, and is expressive and well-articulated, as if it were accompanying a ballet. The finale is swift and sparkling. The orchestral playing is transparent, with all lines and layers clearly visible. The ensemble is light and tight-knit. The performance is characterized by bold accents and full dynamic contrasts. On the whole, I think this is a splendid interpretation.

In the first movement of Prokofievís First Violin Concerto, much is going on in the stratospheric heights. The music has fragrant lyrical blossom Ė at some moments it almost seems to morph into the slow movement of Saint-SaŽns Third! The soloist Hu Kun does well in phrasing Prokofievís long lines. The orchestra is lucid and dainty, with excellent contributions from the woodwind players. The ending is magical. Menuhin applies no pressure, but still keeps the colors bright and saturated.

The middle movement is an energetic Scherzo with many modern elements. Hu Kun and the ESO players fly through it effortlessly. The finale starts with cautious angularity, like some sweetened Shostakovich - who was just 11 at the time of its creation. But then the apollonian personality of the composer shines through, and we can recognize the creator of the most fairytale pages of Cinderella. Actually, one can glimpse the entire ballet in this movement, like an oak in an acorn. The voice of Hu Kunís violin is not thin as, for example, in the Bell-Dutoit recording. The ending returns us to the main theme of the first movement Ė another magical page that melts into dreamy radiance. Georges Auric condemned the traces of ďMendelssohnismĒ in this concerto Ė and indeed, there is some in the flowing lyricism of the outer movements and the elfin lightness of the Scherzo. Unlike Auric, I donít think itís a bad thing at all! Again, this may not be the most powerful reading but it is very lyrical.

This is an excellent document of Menuhinís conducting prowess. The three works receive royal treatment, and from now on this will probably be my Classical Symphony of choice. The recorded sound is warm and inviting. The liner-note (English only) contains a fine essay on the works, which actually manages to tell us something beyond the customary information. Nothing is said there about the performers, though, and thatís a pity.

Oleg Ledeniov

An excellent document of Menuhinís conducting prowess. The three works receive royal treatment.