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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant
Miriam Margolyes (narrator)
Simon Callaghan (piano)
rec. August 2020, London (narration) and Monmouth (music)
NIMBUS NI1571 [27:51]

There are plenty of recordings of Poulenc’s musical response to de Brunhoff’s Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, which has become a classic, sitting alongside Peter and the Wolf as something intended to entice children into the world of classical music. This latest one features some superb piano playing from Simon Callaghan, vividly recorded at the Nimbus Wyastone studio, and a crystal clear, undemonstrative narration from Miriam Margolyes recorded a week later in London. As the booklet proudly tells us, “this recording was made under social distancing guidance relating to COVID-19”. So far so good, although social distancing regulations instituted by neither the UK government nor the Welsh administration have called for partners in a musical performance to be separated by as much as 150 miles, and, indeed, additional complications are incurred when performances cross the demarcation line between Westminster and Cardiff jurisdictions. One can, however, only congratulate the folk at Nimbus for taking social distancing so extremely seriously.

The fact that neither Margolyes nor Callaghan were in the same room or performing at the same time is fairly well masked by the engineers, but somehow the inevitable absence of a rapport between them does make itself keenly felt. For all her brilliance as a comic actor and larger-than-life personality, Miriam Margolyes does sound as if she is merely reading words into an empty room. She makes few attempts at characterisations and, while she reads the story superbly, she does not really make it come alive. Perhaps that it just as well - I recall an old Ace of Clubs recording of the BBC announcer Frank Phillips doing much the same thing with the text of Peter and the Wolf - as too much character from the narrator diminishes the illustrative impact of the musical response. We can all, I imagine, think of performances where a star narrator has attempted to overshadow the music through excessive vocal elaborations. But Margolyes’ delivery is just too dispassionate, and the stop-and-start feel of voice-piano-voice-piano is not alleviated by a personal chemistry which might come when both the performers are actually sharing a single performance.

Callaghan is a fine, sturdy pianist, who brings a powerful and assertive edge to Poulenc’s original extemporised responses to episodes from the story. Yet the piano response seems not to grow from the story so much as interrupt it. There is nothing to fault in his playing, but somehow he does not seem to enter into the spirit of the piece at all. Add to this a very meagre playing time for those who purchase this as a CD, and I fear this does not stand too much comparison with other recordings on the market.

Marc Rochester
Previous reviews: Dominy Clements ~ Nigel Harris

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