Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
The Carnival of the Animals [33:09]
Text by Genevieve and Rebecca Helsby
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Mother Goose [18:34]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Peter and the Wolf [27:04]
Text by Sergei Prokofiev, adapted by Marin Alsop
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra [20:30]
Text by Eric Crozier, adapted by Marin Alsop
Hayley Parkes, Kelly Lenahan (pianos)
Marin Alsop (narrator)
Britten-Pears Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. 2017/18, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh, UK
NAXOS NBD0102V Blu-ray [98 mins]
Many of us love the music of Mahler and Bruckner, composers whose works often deal with tragedy and spiritual ecstasy and other deadly serious subjects, including life and death issues; but I'll surmise that many adult admirers of those two as well as of other classical composers such as Beethoven or Stravinsky also harbor strong feelings for good children's music. I do. Maybe we don't like the music in the same passionate way: I'm not going to run out and acquire the latest highly acclaimed Peter and the Wolf recording the way I would another masterly Prokofiev work like the ballet Romeo and Juliet or his own “life and death” symphony, the Sixth. That said, I still find good recordings of children's music like this new one on Naxos quite special. In fact, I can say that if you like these works, this may be the ideal recording in many ways.
For one thing, there is no other single disc gathering all these warhorse pieces together, and while each is on video with other couplings, none that I could find offered such a generous amount of music in the same genre. Moreover, the performances and production values on this Blu-ray disc are quite high. Some potential purchasers might have doubts about the skill level of the Britten-Pears Orchestra, an ensemble comprised of students and recent graduates connected with the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. They can allay their doubts and fears because this ensemble plays with great spirit and fine accuracy in these live performances. Frankly, I was surprised at the orchestra's collective talent and the players seem fully competitive with those in so many better known professional ensembles. One can see by the facial expressions of many of these youthful members that they truly enjoy this music and seem eager to take on the task at hand.
To some viewers and listeners the strongest aspect of these performances will be the narration of conductor Marin Alsop. She is natural and very dramatic, delivering the various texts in a manner that would be especially effective with children. She doesn't adopt a condescending or supercilious manner as some narrators have, nor does she overdo the dramatics. In short, I haven't heard a better narrator in any of these works. As one might expect, Alsop's conducting also divulges her total sympathies with the music as she shapes the scores effectively and, as suggested, draws fine playing from these talented youthful musicians in these live performances. Tempos, dynamics, accenting, rubato and other aspects of phrasing all fit the music's character well, whether its Prokofiev's deft wit, Saint-Saëns' chameleonic colors and moods, Ravel's child-like innocence and playfulness or Britten's exuberance.
I would say most seasoned concertgoers and listeners are sufficiently familiar with these very popular and masterful works and thus it isn't necessary for me to give analysis or description of them. For those buying for children I can't think of a recording that would have stronger appeal. True, Ravel's Mother Goose offers program music describing events in five tales but with no narrator and thus its appeal to some children, especially very young ones, may be limited even though the music is comparatively direct and simple (but not simplistic). Kids will be particularly fond, however, of this Peter and the Wolf for not only is the performance just fine but the narration here is superbly crafted by Alsop to vividly incarnate the story's happenings, and their resultant triumphs, joys and sorrows. Some modern versions actually sanitize Prokofiev's story by changing the fate of the duck: she is magically burped out of the wolf's stomach at the end of the story, so children won't have to confront pondering her unhappy fate. This version does not change the ending, wisely so I believe — bad things happen in the world and most children already know that.
As suggested above, the production values in the four performances are very high, featuring fine camera work, clear and well balanced sound reproduction, and very informative notes by Jonathan Woolf. True, Alsop moves around sometimes as she narrates and momentarily goes slightly out of focus from time to time but this is hardly a significant impediment. I should mention that she is filmed delivering the narration off stage, but it is edited into the performances at the appropriate moments. There is one oversight here though: surprisingly Naxos does not give the names of the two very excellent pianists in The Carnival of the Animals in either the accompanying materials or in the credits at the end of the last performance. I did some digging on the web and unearthed their names as Hayley Parkes and Kelly Lenahan as listed in the heading. In sum, while there are better performances of these works on record from a purely musical point of view, I don't think you'll be losing much with this disc, and you'll be gaining on the dramatic and production side, easily balancing the scales. Thus, I thoroughly recommend this totally enjoyable recording.