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Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
The Story of Babar, the little elephant (1940-45) [27:51]
Miriam Margolyes (narrator)
Simon Callaghan (piano)
rec. 9 August 2020, Wyastone, Monmouth, UK (music) and 16 August 2020, London (narration).

Jean de Brunhoff’s story of Babar the little elephant should be a part of everyone’s childhood, and Francis Poulenc’s superb score gives us all the joy of hearing it read out loud alongside sublime and entertaining music. Unlike melodrama type pieces, this is simple storytelling without overly dramatic overtones, and with a similar effect to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf though not with that piece’s thematic distinctiveness. The booklet notes for this release tell us that “Poulenc was spending time with the granddaughter of one of his cousins. Noting that she became bored with the music he was playing, Poulenc put Brunhoff’s Barbar on the piano and began to improvise, to the great delight of the young girl...”

Simon Callaghan’s excellent piano playing is set in the fine acoustic of Wyastone concert hall. He gets to the character and heart of the music without fuss; both with a great deal of expressive warmth and a colourful sense of action and drama. The wonderful Miriam Margolyes requires no introduction, being a national treasure of both the UK and Australia. Her reading voice is of course highly versatile, with just the right amount of emphasis and characterisation - filling our imaginations with the story and its protagonists, but with no need for mannered style or histrionics. The whole thing lasts for less than half an hour, but is the sort of thing you could listen to for much longer.

If there is any criticism to be made here, it is that there has been no attempt to set the voice in a similar space to the piano. The balance is fine, but Miriam is in an anechoic studio and the piano occupies resonant splendour. This is by no means a major problem, and is of course an entirely valid production choice. Perhaps they tried a bit of resonance with the voice but found it harder to match up Wyastone with anything in the computer, and so decided to stick with the original effect. Ideally everyone would have been in the same hall, but mention is made on the booklet that “this recording was made under social distancing guidelines relating to COVID-19” and allowances can certainly be made, given the quality of this performance.

The last time I encountered Barbar on record was in 2016 on the Paladino Music label (review). This is a good set with plenty of Poulenc extras, and for if you need the story in French and German as well as English. The piano playing and sound is however a bit on the heavy side when compared with Simon Callaghan, and Norman Shetler, while an excellent narrator, is less subtle than Miriam Margolyes, who draws us in with a more understated atmosphere.

With a duration of 27:51 we are into ‘CD Single’ territory, but this is reflected in a lower price for the disc, which is therefore worth every penny. In lockdown or not, parents could do much worse than to buy both this and Jean de Brunhoff’s book ‘The Story of Barbar’, so that everyone can read along and enjoy the wonderful illustrations. Be aware, however, that there are some tragic moments to go along with all of the magical charm and festivities.

Dominy Clements

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