In May 1995 Andrei Tchistiakov conducted a recording in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre with the Moscow Festival Orchestra under the auspices of the Russian Seasons record label for their joint venture partner in France, Le Chant du Monde. Several months later I found myself in the Moscow office of the Head of Russian Seasons being told by him that the recording was planned only for a French language narration. He had no information on who was to do the narration. Most astonishingly, he expressed no interest in using it for a Russian language narrated version. He dismissed it as a work that is used for puppet shows and children’s ballets, and that no Russian-narrated recording was needed. This attitude is startling in the light of now knowing that the French narration was performed by Sir Peter Ustinov! Ustinov was fluent in Russian and would have been an ideal candidate for the job. Tchistiakov’s recording was also used by Harmonia Mundi for a Spanish narration by Iņaki Gabilondo, and it is here that the un-narrated version was also issued.
Most recently, in August 2002, Kent Nagano conducted the Russian National Orchestra in a surround-sound recording during the orchestra’s American tour in Oakland, California. It was used for an English language narration overdubbed in Geneva, Switzerland in December 2002 by Sophia Loren. In California, the orchestra had also done the world premičre recording of a sequel, Wolf Tracks by Jean-Pascal Beintus, which was overdub-narrated at the same Swiss session by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. But what makes this PentaTone Classics CD even more amazing is the introduction to these two works that was recorded in Moscow in February 2003 by former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev. Yet another opportunity missed. Gorbachev would have been an ideal candidate to record a Russian language narration of Peter and the Wolf. Since all fees were going to charity, he probably would have agreed to do it.
One could wonder if Prokofiev’s wife and son, Lina and Oleg, could have done Russian language versions at the time of their respective English language recordings. But what is necessary is not a novelty for the overseas market, but a useful recording that the children of Russia itself would love. Probably every popular Russian singer and actor from Alla Pugachova to t.A.T.u. could be on the prospective list, but my favourite candidate would be Nikolai Fomenko. He began his career in the rock group Secret and has since become an accomplished comic actor and television host, including the popular children’s game show “Polundra”. If a new post-Soviet Russian language recording were to be made it would be of great interest to hear if Peter is referred to as “Pioneer Peter” in the places in Prokofiev’s original narration where he used this descriptor. But it is clear that until one or a multitude of Russian language recordings become available, Peter and the Wolf will remain only a minor classic in Peter’s home country.
But since we in the English-speaking world are confronted with a rich selection of recordings, how is one supposed to choose? Assuming that, unlike me, you are not collecting all the ones you can afford, you should first decide what purpose your selection will serve. If you are buying it to introduce your children to symphonic music and the instruments of the orchestra, your selection can only include those which utilise a full symphony orchestra and include the prelude introducing the characters and the instruments. A decision might have to be made whether you feel it is necessary for the narrator to keep to the original form of the script, if not the exact words. Some versions completely rewrite the entire script, and that much adaptation is considered unnecessary by some. This line of thinking considers that you should wait until after your children are accustomed to the original before adding a second recording that modernises the script. On the other hand, it might be easier to introduce children to adaptations like the Disney or Sesame Street versions and then move up to the more serious originals. But in either case, you should stick to the versions that tell the original story.
Prokofiev had definite ideas of how the narration should fit the music, and this ought to be considered if you want an authentic performance. It is clear is that Prokofiev intended the voice portion to be a narration. It could be dramatic but was not meant to overpower the music – or really to be musical itself. Natalia Sats wrote about it in her autobiography: “Things began badly”, she wrote. “I invited a poetess, an admirer of Prokofiev’s music, to work up our ideas in the form of a scenario. Prokofiev threw it out at once and I got a good dressing-down for my pains. ‘She did it all in rhyme’, he said, ‘and the balance between words and music in a work like this is very delicate. The words must know their place, otherwise they may lead the listener’s attention astray, instead of helping his perception of the music.’” Sats continues: “Prokofiev was right. The fragile and complex process of creation had already begun in him and the diligently written doggerel that had nothing to do with the music had naturally infuriated him.”
Prokofiev intended the narration to be done by a single, individual person, not a cast of actors. The instruments were to be the actors, each taking the part of a character. The voices of numerous human actors playing the different roles would probably be counter to Prokofiev’s intentions. Sats reported Prokofiev’s ideas: “We should begin with specific and striking contrasts: the wolf and the bird, the evil and the good, the big and the small. The characters’ individuality will be expressed in the timbres of different instruments, and each of them will have a leitmotif.” (1)
There have been only a very few recordings that utilise more than one voice. Ironically, the recording by Prokofiev’s son Oleg utilises Oleg’s son Gabriel in the role of Peter. The audio and video version titled “Chuck Jones’ Peter and the Wolf” moves the location to Switzerland and stars Kirstie Alley with a full cast including Lloyd Bridges as the grandfather, with Ross Malinger as Peter. Ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson has some of his sidekicks play some of the roles, but it is done sparingly. Rich Little does part of the narration in imitated voices of celebrities. It was done in newscast style by the journalists of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered”, but the most dramatic version with a full cast and sound effects is the LP in MGM’s “Stereo Motion Children’s Series”.
One step beyond the adaptations are the parodies. These parodies cannot really be understood except in relationship to the original. Some, like Peter Schickele’s “Sneaky Pete and the Wolf”, and Allen Sherman’s “Peter and the Commissar”, are nothing like the original, but you will be surprised how closely the “Weird Al” Yankovic version sticks to the original. After becoming completely familiar with the original, your children will just love the Yankovic version, that is, when they are able to wrest it out of your hands.
When you are not busy listening to “Weird Al’s” parody, what recordings should you buy for yourself? The musical performance of the conductor and orchestra is one aspect, of course, but the choice of narrator is more dominant because there is a far greater variety in interpretation possible. For yourself, you might want to avoid narrators who are trying too hard to appeal to small children. While having a baseball player or political figure doing the narration adds to the novelty value, you should consider the vocal qualities and skills of the narrator. But there still is the joy of having a friend come visiting and you can say, “You’re not going to believe who narrated this recording of Peter and the Wolf!”
(1) - From Natalia Sats, Sketches From My Life. quoted in Christopher Palmer’s sleeve notes “Sergei Prokofiev and his music for children” for Prokofiev’s Music for Children (Hyperion: CDA66499), pp. 8-9.
BACK TO SUMMARY