November 2003

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf; Beintus: Wolf Tracks
Sophia Loren and Bill Clinton, narrators. Mikhail Gorbachev, speaker.
Russian National Orchestra; Kent Nagano, conductor.
PentaTone Multichannel Hybrid SACD 5186 011
Released: 2003

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***

Serge Prokofiev composed Peter and the Wolf in 1936, during a frustrating period when he was trying to gain political acceptance after moving back to Moscow. It is a charming work in which a narrator tells the story of Peter, who went out to hunt a wolf against his grandfather’s advice. Each character is represented musically by instruments of the orchestra. The grandfather is a grumpy bassoon, the bird a dulcet flute, the duck a poignant oboe, the cat a saucy, slinky clarinet, Peter the irrepressible string section, while the hunters are French horns and their gunshots timpani. The work has been successfully recorded countless times, with everyone from Sean Connery to David Bowie doing the narration.

The impetus for this new recording, the first in the SACD format, was a project conceived by the Russian National Orchestra and conductor Kent Nagano. In a hands-across-the-sea gesture, Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton are involved, and almost all the profits are being given to charity. Sophia Loren is giving her royalties to the Magic of Music, Clinton to the International AIDS Trust, and Gorbachev to Green Cross International, an environmental charity. The exquisite artwork for the CD booklet and cover is the work of talented children who live in Moscow orphanages. The Prokofiev would be balanced by a new composition penned by French composer Jean-Pascal Beintus called Wolf Tracks.

Given this information, it seems churlish to aim any criticism at this effort, and, fortunately, there is only one major flaw (more about that later). The Prokofiev receives a radiant reading, as good as any in the catalog. Sophia Loren proves to be a splendid narrator, imbuing her reading with charm and an innate sense of drama. The orchestra’s soloists play splendidly, the first clarinet in particular. Mikhail Gorbachev provides a heartfelt introduction (as well as an interlude and postlude to the entire recording). He speaks in Russian and his phrases are followed by an English translation spoken by Sergei Markov.

Whereas the Prokofiev piece portrays the wolf as evil yet not bad enough to be killed (he is put in the zoo at Peter’s request), the new piece by Beintus preaches harmony with nature. It deplores the harm done to animals such as wolves, by careless development and reckless anti-environmental policies. Grandfather ( Peter, now grown up) tells his grandson "Let them be." It is not as forceful a piece as the Prokofiev, but pleasant enough, with a message that will grab many.

Now the major flaw: Bill Clinton, who narrates Wolf Tracks. His narration is so bland, it seems completely devoid any drama or involvement. It seems to have been read from a TelePrompTer with little or no passion involved. Wimpy for a former President of the United States!

The recorded sound is first-rate. The narrators, who were recorded at a different time and in a separate location from the orchestra, are almost entirely in the center speaker, with just enough spill to left and right to make them sound like they are in the same space as the instruments. The orchestra is spread wide from left to right, with woodwinds nicely centered. There is good stage depth. Surrounds are used for appropriate ambience and never call attention to themselves as such. Particularly remarkable are the interchanges between Loren and the woodwind soloists, which are singularly clear, no doubt because of the high-resolution sound plus careful recording and mixing.

I would recommend this Peter and the Wolf as one of the better ones in the catalog and surely the best recorded. Unfortunately, we can only guess at the full impact of Wolf Tracks because of Clinton’s lackluster narration. Still, the money goes to many good causes so it is not a bad purchase just to have 23.29 minutes of wonderful Prokofiev.