Eleanor Roosevelt narrating Peter and the Wolf with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Opera Theatre at Tanglewood, Lenox, Massachusetts; 11 August 1950.
Decca, the third largest record company in the U.S., was seemingly on the right track when they had their version narrated by their children’s record star, Frank Luther in late March 1940. This was the second set to be released, getting to the market a year before Rathbone’s 11 July 1941 recording with Stokowski on Columbia, but a year after Hale’s 12 April 1939 recording with Koussevitzky on Victor. Frank Luther’s conductor was a friend of Prokofiev’s, Alexander Smallens, who, although less a celebrity than Koussevitzky or Stokowski, had been very successful the previous year for Decca conducting their semi-original cast album of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” with Todd Duncan and Anne Brown. The poor quality of American Decca’s shellac made it highly unlikely that these brittle pressings would survive much use by children, adding to its relative scarcity. Most pressings of the Columbia set were on laminated material which was more difficult to break, and this can account for the greater survival rate of the Rathbone recording.
Until the end of World War II, these three were the only recorded versions. The post-war years saw the growth of independent record companies, and many of them made children’s records. Abridged versions were made by many of them, usually using unknown voices and musicians. Some of these recordings have had a long afterlife and for the next three decades showed up anonymously or pseudonymously in many different versions on numerous labels on all three speeds. They even provide soundtracks for animated versions on inexpensive kiddie videocassettes.
One animated version stands out. Walt Disney included it as a segment in “Make Mine Music” and an infinite variety of versions are available on phonograph records, videocassettes, laser discs, and DVDs. Red-haired Sterling Holloway did the original English narration plus two different phonograph record versions that each have seen a half dozen different releases. Additionally, Disney collectors can find records and videos in a multitude of other languages including French, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese and Hebrew.
In the original film, and on the two different versions available on record, Sterling Holloway takes the role as narrator in the traditional way, but the text is dramatically embellished and enlarged, and the music has been shortened and scored to follow the action of the cartoon. Using radio drama narration techniques, the recording Holloway did on Victor is a superior synchronisation of the words and music compared to the soundtrack and the Disneyland label records, but none of these follow how Prokofiev intended the narration to be. Most of the music is performed with his voice over it.
Peter and the Wolf was present at the birth of the modern LP as the old Rathbone recording was part of the initial June 1948 Columbia LP release with the famous “tombstone” cover. For a while there was nothing else on LP. Then as 1950 ended and as London and RCA Victor began their jump onto the LP bandwagon, two 10-inchers from them appeared. Frank Philips narrated for London, and RCA Victor presented the ultimate celebrity recording: Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony with Eleanor Roosevelt narrating. It didn’t stay in the catalogue long. It was gone by the time they could get Richard Hale to do a new recording with Fiedler and the Boston Pops in 1953. That new Hale recording joined another Fiedler recording with British actor Alec Guinness also on Red Seal, a recording of Wilfred Pickles on the RCA Bluebird children’s series, and finally in 1954 by a reissue of the original Hale recording on a brand new subsidiary, RCA Camden – anonymously at first as the Centennial Symphony Orchestra. Hale’s voice was so recognisable that it was impossible to maintain the pseudonyms for very long.
Over at Columbia, CBS Radio and TV personality Arthur Godfrey narrated it with André Kostelanetz. At first this recording joined the Rathbone in the Masterworks series, but after a few number and coupling changes, both recordings were demoted to the popular CL series. The Rathbone became part of an album called “Peter, Tubby, and Pan” coupled with a reissue of the original Victor Jory recording of Tubby the Tuba from Cosmo Records, and a cover version of Paul Wing’s Pan the Piper with a different narrator. Eli Oberstein’s low-priced label Royale had a version by Bob Danvers Walker. In what seemed to be an unusual but perfectly logical move, Vox released a recording by ill-fated child actor Brandon De Wilde.
By 1953 it was evident that the era of the 78 RPM record was ending. The Roosevelt, Philips, and Godfrey versions had been issued on 78s as well as 45s and 33s, but the 78 versions of these and the earlier recordings were soon deleted. Godfrey’s recording would be the final set ever issued as 78s in the Columbia Masterworks series, and is very rare in that version. A few of the abridged kiddie 78s remained available, but these too were gone by the end of the 1950s.
As the 1950s progressed it was firmly established that celebrity narrators would be used. Cyril Ritchard, newly famous with kids as Captain Hook to Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, appeared on Columbia with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. TV host Garry Moore appeared on Westminster along with some animal sound effects in the introduction. These two became the first stereo versions, available first on open reel tape.
Carlos Montalban’s Spanish recording on Monitor was the first non-English version to appear in the Schwann Record Catalogue. It is also the first example in the American catalogue of overdubbing the narration onto a pre-existing orchestral recording. This now common technique is often used for scheduling convenience and to allow for perfecting the recordings without making either the narrator or the orchestra wait around to do retakes because of the errors of the other party. But in the case of Peter and the Wolf it is often used to provide for multiple versions in different languages, or to allow a small company to produce a version with minimal cost. Both of these latter purposes were served here, because the orchestral recording used by Monitor was the USSR State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, which had been originally used for the Soviet 10-inch LP with Nikolai Litvinov. And in addition to these recordings in Russian and Spanish, it was also used in a poorly edited condition by Wonderland Records for a narration in English by Frank Milano. And it might possibly be the same recording on a French recording by Gérard Philipe on Le Chant du Monde.
This brings us to the major conundrum of collecting recordings of Peter and the Wolf. I had assumed that there would be dozens of recordings of the work in the Russian language and that there would be further versions in the other major languages of the Soviet Union. When I started to collect Soviet records in the mid-1980s I expected my correspondents to supply me with a flood of them. They all came up blank. Since I had easily found one in Slovak in the first record store I entered in Bratislava, and found two Hungarian versions in Budapest, surely there would be plenty of Russian versions in Moscow and Leningrad. Finally, Dr. Alexander Tikhonov, then of the Russian State Sound Archive, solved the mystery. There have only been four recordings released in the Russian language, and none in any of the other Soviet languages. Although this information solved that mystery, it did not answer the question that immediately arises: Why only four?
The first Soviet recording was a Stalin-era 78 set narrated by Vera Maretskaya around 1947, which has never been reissued. The first microgroove version around 1957 was the 10-inch 33 narrated by Nikolai Litvinov. In 1970, what should have been the definitive version by Natalia Sats was released on a 12-inch LP, and had a short-lived CD reissue in the late 1990s. The fourth Soviet Russian recording is a rare 1980 7-inch 33 narrated by K. M. Rumyanova, possibly abridged and using portions of the same Rozhdestvensky conducted recording from the Litvinov record.
The Sats recording is marred by not having the prelude introducing the characters and their instrumental representatives. Fortunately this part is included in the videocassette of her English language performance during the 50th anniversary commemoration in New York. She is known to have also performed narrations in French, German, and Italian, but there are no known releases of any recordings that might have been made.
The post-Soviet years have presented unusual recording activity of this piece, but as of yet have yielded no additional recordings narrated in Russian. In 1993 Stanislav Gorkovenko recorded an un-narrated version with the St. Petersburg Radio & TV Symphony Orchestra which was released in the U.S. on an Infinity Digital CD. In 1994 the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted in Moscow by female Chinese conductor Wing-Sie Yip for the Hugo label. This Hong Kong company has issued this recording narrated by the conductor in the Cantonese dialect as well as narrated by Yang Ding in the Putonghua dialect.
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