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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Symphony #7

  • Symphony #7
  • Summer Day
  • Peter and the Wolf
  • Winter Bonfire
Maureen Forrester, narrator; Louise- Andrée Baril, piano
Le Petits Chanteurs de Mont-Royal/Gilbert Patenaude
Orchestre Métropolitan/Agnes Grossmann
CBC Records 5118-2 2CDs 115min
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Imagine my surprise when I put the first of these two discs in the player and out came the sound of a loudly purring cat. Although we have three music-loving felines in our family, none were present at the time. Then I heard Maureen Forrester say, "Amishka has decided it's time to get up, though the sun doesn't share her opinion. Gently she licks Sergei's left cheek…" Aha! The producers of this recording have chosen to turn Prokofieff's Summer Day suite into a children's story. What a splendid idea. The music – based on a series of piano pieces that Prokofieff intended for children to play – is perfectly suited to this treatment. The composer himself later orchestrated seven of them, which form in the present suite. I cannot understand why Summer Day is not played and recorded more often, as it's not far removed in style or invention from Peter and the Wolf, which was composed at nearly the same time.

Forrester gives a warm and affectionate reading of the text by André Vigeant which skillfully weaves the story of the fictional – but highly plausible – adventures of a day from Prokofieff's childhood on his father's estate in the Ukraine with his sweetly nostalgic score. A wide variety of sound-effects add color and immediacy to the story. The music itself is baby-simple and for the most part does not overtax the modest abilities of the Orchestre Metropolitain, though string intonation in the Waltz is poor, and the playing in general has little energy or rhythmic vitality. The major drawback to this recording is that you can't program your player to skip the narration and listen only to the music. The Suite (like Peter and the Wolf and Winter Bonfire) is given only one track, and the text and sound-effects overlap the beginning and end of each number.

The music of Winter Bonfire is nearly as winning as Summer Day (especially the lively 'Departure' and 'Chorus of the Pioneers',). The problem here is the bland and impersonal text: "It's a peaceful, quiet morning in our grey and sleepy city as we stand on the railway platform, waiting for our winter holidays to begin. A whistle blows and sweet-faced youngsters flock into the train, their happy din punctuated by the clatters of skates and skis…"

The performances of Peter and Symphony 7 are disappointing. Forrester overacts shamelessly in the familiar children's story, and the strings of the Orchestre Metropolitain are far too weak for either work. Both scores sound bland and lifeless here, thanks to conductor Grossmann's sluggish tempos, odd balances, and generally episodic approach. At least they didn't attempt to graft a silly narration on to the Symphony.

Potential buyers beware: my review copy of disc 1 was plagued by an unusual defect. Beginning about 30 minutes in (toward the end of Summer Day) a slight crackling noise – rather like the sound of a worn LP – becomes audible, and the louder the music, the louder the noise. The defect becomes even more pronounced during Peter.

Had this release consisted of a single disc coupling Summer Day with Winter Bonfire, I might have been willing to give it a mild endorsement. After all, we need ways to make classical music more accessible to children. Still, given the tentative playing of the orchestra and Forrester's lack of consistency, I'd recommend that you save your money for a truly first-rate version of Peter and the Wolf – such as Leonard Bernstein's or even Sting's. Nor can you go wrong with André Previn's heartbreaking account of Symphony 7. For the other two scores, this set is your only choice until Supraphon reissues its engaging and beautifully-played Prague Chamber Orchestra recording or unless Neeme Järvi goes back into the recording studio.

Copyright © 1995, Tom Godell, All Rights Reserved.
This review originally appeared in the American Record Guide