Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891–1953)
Peter and the Wolf
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835–1921)
Carnival of the Animals
Francis POULENC (1899–1963)
The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant
Richard Briers (narrator);.David Coram (organ); David Owen Norris (piano)
rec. Romsey Abbey, 1 April 2011; Turner Sims Concert Hall, University of Southampton, 9 April 2011 (Poulenc)

I have six grandchildren; so I know a bit about the target audience for this recording. It contains three of the Top Ten on anyone’s list of the best classical compositions for children.

Peter and the Wolf was written in 1936, with music and words by Prokofiev, as a commission from the Moscow Central Children’s Chorus. Although its premiere was poorly attended, it did succeed in the long term in achieving its sponsor’s aim of “cultivating musical tastes in children from the first years of school”. It is usually heard with narrator and full orchestra, but here the orchestra is replaced by the organ. This rearrangement works in some ways, and not others: for example, the bird as flute, and the duck as oboe, are convincing, but bassoon for Grandfather and horns for the wolf are less so. And it’s jarring to hear the word “diapasons” used in a description of Peter, aimed at a five-year-old. On the other hand, replacing the orchestra with the organ opens up access to many more audiences, at more reasonable cost. This is precisely what the principals on this album plan to do during a 2012 tour.

Carnival of the Animals is a piece that Saint-Saëns was embarrassed about from its debut in 1886, worrying that it would damage his reputation as a serious composer. Ironically it has become one of his best known and loved works. It was written to show young people the range and playfulness of orchestral instruments, and it succeeded. One reason for its success is that Saint-Saëns borrowed great tunes freely: Berlioz, Offenbach, Rameau and himself. Another is that in 1949 the American poet Ogden Nash wrote droll verses to accompany each of the 14 movements. Most performances and recordings today feature the music with the poetry. Saint-Saëns’ original version uses two pianos prominently with orchestra, so in this recording the piano is essential with organ.

The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, was written in French in 1933 by Jean de Brunhoff. It spawned a series of books and videos to which his son has further contributed. Poulenc’s three-year old cousin Sophie was vacationing with him outside Paris in the summer of 1940, when she become bored with his composing. Legend has it that she placed her Babar storybook upside-down on the piano stand and said “Play this!” He improvised between sections of the story, and later wrote down the music, dedicating it to Sophie and the other neighbourhood children who thronged to hear it. The English translation used in this recording is different from that in the first Random House publication, and leaves out major sections of the story. Even so, the result comes in at just less than half an hour, a challenging attention span for a child.

The actor Richard Briers narrates all three pieces. His face and voice are familiar from British TV and stage. He is able to call up gravity, impishness or breathlessness as these stories and poems require.

An act of love created this album – or rather two acts. The first act created the label. This is the first release from a new label – Cathedral Classics - from the team of Matthew Dilley and Richard Bland. The latter recorded, edited and produced this album. Their discography includes many recordings in the chapels on the Cambridge and Oxford campuses. An even greater contribution to the recording, including personal investment, came from the organist, David Coram, who clearly loves the instrument, and believes in its power to communicate with children. He arranged the first two pieces here for organ. He also wrote the accompanying booklet which is aimed perfectly at his young audience - with a note to parents warning them of the references to firearms in the Peter and Babar stories, in case even younger ones might be frightened. The booklet cover and the CD feature cute drawings of the stories’ characters .by Mike Brownlow.

If you have children on your gift list, this album will be gratefully received and enjoyed.

Paul Kennedy

If you have children on your gift list, this album will be gratefully received and enjoyed.