from the private collection of Michael Biel.
Most collections of classical music recordings will include at least one version of Peter and the Wolf, but why did I set out to collect hundreds of versions? Well, I didn’t. It just happened. Although I love music and collect music recordings, my first love is the spoken word, especially historical and celebrity recordings. But my favourite recordings are when the spoken word is combined with music. Now I don’t mean singing – I mean the spoken word. Radio drama, especially pieces by Norman Corwin with music by Bernard Herrmann, and those Decca drama records with their magnificent scores by Victor Young, are of prime interest as is the cantata form, such as “Ballad for Americans”, “Manhattan Tower”, “The Lonesome Train”, and Corwin pieces like “We Hold These Truths”. Collecting these are easy because they were recorded relatively few times.
But pieces like Peter and the Wolf are in the standard repertoire, which are recorded often. Without meaning to, over the years I had picked up many recordings of it by celebrities, and as I started to travel around the world I tried to find foreign language versions. Suddenly I realised that I had well over 50 versions of this one piece of music and that with a little work I might be able to compile a discography. Well, it’s been over ten years and has quadrupled in size.
First of all, for the average music lover, the multiple recordings make it possible to find it performed by some of the greatest conductors and orchestras. Serge Koussevitzky or Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Arthur Fiedler, John Williams, or Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops, Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops, Leopold Stokowski and the Stadium Symphony Orchestra, André Previn, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Skitch Henderson, or Sir Charles Mackerras and the London Symphony Orchestra, Artur Rodzinski and the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London, Igor Markevitch, Herbert von Karajan, or Efrem Kurtz and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Stanley Black and the London Festival Orchestra, Sir Yehudi Menuhin and the English String Orchestra, Sir Eugene Goossens or Mario Rossi and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Karl Boehm and the Vienna Philharmonic, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Karel Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Zuban Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Lorin Maazel and the Orchestre National de France, János Ferencsik and the Budapest Philharmonic or the Hungarian State Orchestra, and many, many others.
Big Band jazz fans can find versions by Benny Goodman, Freddy Martin, Guy Lombardo, Shep Fields, Les Brown, John Scott Trotter, Jimmy Smith, the Clyde Valley Stompers, and Pee Wee Erwin. Rock fans can look for versions by the Ventures, Harpers Bizzare, Zero G, and multiple language releases with an all-star band including Phil Collins, Gary Moore, Robin Lumley, Jack Lancaster, and Stephane Grappelli. Those interested in unusual instrumentation can find Dave Van Ronk with his Kazoo-O-Phonic Jug Band, Bono with a mandolin, banjo, accordion and percussion, a broadcast parody by Spike Jones and His City Slickers, and Wendy Carlos and her synthesizer “The LSI Philharmonic”.
Those seeking serious adaptations for standard instruments can find some interesting examples. The Milton Cross narration was accompanied by Lucy Brown playing Prokofiev’s own piano reduction score. Tatiana Nikolaeva recorded her own piano suite arrangement. “The Processional March” was recorded by the Philharmonic Piano Quartet, and the Bolshoi Theatre Violin Ensemble on their respective instruments. The “Theme and Processional” was played on a recording with just one of each of these instruments, Ricardo Odnoposoff on violin with Valentin Pavlovsky on piano. And more recently, Steven Pisaro has recorded a guitar version.
But as indicated earlier, this work also attracts collectors of spoken word recordings. Those interested in political personalities can choose from two recordings by Eleanor Roosevelt on the political left, and one by William F. Buckley, Jr. on the right wing. News readers, or in some cases, actors who had gotten their start in news or broadcast announcing, include Ben Grauer, Lorne Greene, Wilfred Pickles, Angela Rippon, Milton Cross, Dorothy Fuldheim, Arthur Godfrey, Bob Danvers Walker, Terry Wogan, and a full team of newscasters from America’s National Public Radio evening newscast, “All Things Considered”.
Radio comedians include Fred Allen, Kenneth Horne, Henry Morgan, and Garry Moore. Those known primarily as comedians or comic actors include Kirstie Alley, Ray Bolger, Eddie Bracken, Hans Conreid, Dom DeLuise, Dame Edna Everage, Fernandel, Don Harron, Melissa Joan Hart, Lenny Henry, Paul Hogan, Frankie Howerd, Sterling Holloway, Bob Keeshan, Rich Little, Bob McGrath, Jimmy Nelson & friends, Rob Reiner, Peter Schickele, Arnold Stang, Peter Ustinov, and Jonathan Winters.
Actors who are generally seen in more serious roles include David Attenborough, Richard Attenborough, LeVar Burton, Lloyd Bridges, Sean Connery, Mildred Dunnock, Ralph Evans, Mia Farrow, José Ferrer, Will Geer, Sir John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Richard Hale, Victor Jory, Boris Karloff, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, George Raft, Basil Rathbone, Sir Ralph Richardson, Romy Schneider, Patrick Stewart, and Sharon Stone.
Not too many narrators are known primarily as musicians. Conductor and pianists Leonard Bernstein and André Previn, cellists Jacqueline du Pré and Itzhak Perlman, and tuba player William Bell are the main ones noted. Of course, Dudley Moore and Jack Lemmon were known to do a bit of noodling on the piano, while Tony Randall, Carol Channing, Beatrice Lillie, Hermione Gingold, Cyril Ritchard and Zero Mostel did their share of musical comedy. Those known primarily as singers include Maureen Forrester, Michael Flanders, Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, David Bowie, Sting, Bono, Frank Luther, Allan Sherman, Dave Van Ronk, and “Weird Al” Yankovic.
For those who are interested in comparative languages, in addition to both American and British English, I have located recordings in Cantonese Chinese, Putonghua Chinese, Arabic, Czech, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Norwegian, Russian, Slovakian, Spanish and Swedish.
For those who are interested in comparing multiple interpretations by the same performer, there are several who have recorded it twice, including Sir John Gielgud, Richard Hale, Sterling Holloway, Boris Karloff, Henry Morgan, Kirstie Alley, Bob McGrath, Dudley Moore, Basil Rathbone, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Sir Peter Ustinov. If you wish to compare the same narrator in multiple languages, Peter Ustinov has recorded it in French in addition to the two English language recordings he made. José Ferrer recorded it in both English and Spanish, and Itzhak Perlman recorded it in both English and Hebrew. Serge Koussevitzky, Arthur Fiedler, and Leopold Stokowski each conducted several different recordings many years apart.
This is not an all-inclusive list. I do not know the background of all the narrators, especially those in the foreign languages. Some of them would not be recognised by readers of this journal. And I was not sure under which categories to put Prokofiev’s wife, son, and grandson, Lina, Oleg and Gabriel; the director of the Central Children’s Theatre who had commissioned Prokofiev to write the piece, Natalia Sats; The French Chef, Julia Child; and baseball pitcher Tom Seaver. But you must admit that the above list is quite impressive.
Let’s go back to the 78 RPM era when this piece was brand new and classical records were expensive and breakable. Peter and the Wolf might have been many youngsters’ introduction not only to classical music but also to grown-ups’ records. How successful this might have been can be determined from the number of empty albums or incomplete sets found by collectors! I tend to think that intact sets were not the possessions of children. Considering that, the narrators of two of the first three recordings, Richard Hale and Basil Rathbone, have always struck me as mind-chilling choices. I tend to think of Rathbone as either the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham or as Sherlock Holmes roaming through a dangerously foggy London night.
I have been able to find out almost nothing about Richard Hale. The New York Times reviewed two concerts by a baritone of that name in the late 1930s and remarked about his acting and his dramatic singing. If that is him, perhaps concert singing is his connection to the Boston Symphony. I also think his voice was heard in the opening of a late 1930s radio horror program “The Witch’s Tale”. Spooky. Equally spooky is the role he had in the 1953 film of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”. He is the blind soothsayer who warns Caesar “Beware the Ides of March”. Are these the people you would want your kids to spend time with?
At this rate, why not have Frankenstein’s monster, Boris Karloff, narrate the piece? Actually, that wasn’t such a weird idea. He narrated an abridged version for Mercury in the late 1940s and a complete version in 1959 for Vanguard. And he has been joined by another horror film star, Christopher Lee, in a 1989 Nimbus recording.
Victor did have an excellent children’s record narrator in their roster, Paul Wing, and it is surprising that they did not use him to make a recording of Peter. He probably thought likewise, and as World War II ended he collaborated with George Kleinsinger to write and narrate Pan the Piper, which in some ways is an even better introduction to the orchestra than Peter. By that time Victor had begun to use vinyl for their children’s records and some premium classical albums. Pan the Piper was issued in vinyl, but Koussevitzky’s Peter and the Wolf 78 sets never were.
A note to collectors: inspect every copy of the Hale 78 set that you come across. They are not all the same. There are alternate takes available for at least sides one and three. Side one take three appears on early pressings and on the Camden LP and the Pearl CD. Hale goes up in pitch on the word “dear” in “My dear children”, and says a long “a” before the word “bassoon”. Later pressings have an unmarked take for side one, where he is almost monotone in that opening statement, and gives a short “a” before the word “bassoon”. Side three take one is on later pressings and the LP. He says “uh” in “but uh in her overemphasis”, but side three take three, which appears in earlier pressings and the CD, does not include the “uh”. The approved takes for the six sides were 3, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, but additional alternate takes might have been used, especially in the very late pressings.
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