One thing I plan to do on a weekly basis is give a review of a book, cd, game, movie, or some other product that appeals to families or children. This is the first of those, and for your convenience, I will include a link to Amazon’s listing for the product.
Peter and the Wolf is a quintessential childhood experience—whether you first experienced it through Disney’s classic (if somewhat bowdlerized) animated short, at a concert, or by listening to this or one of the many other recordings of the piece—it serves as a wonderful introduction to classical music to young children. Of course, Prokofiev is one of my favorite composers as well, so Peter and the Wolf has a special place in my heart, and I look forward to sharing it with Samuel as he grows older too. I admit that I was not as familiar with Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals; however, that is a favorite of my wife’s, and I enjoyed listening to it as well. At three and a half months, Samuel didn’t seem to appreciate listening to this album as much as I did, but I think he will when he’s older, and I know other children will as well.
The album begins with one long track (over 27 minutes long) consisting of the entirety of Peter and the Wolf, featuring Leonard Bernstein as the narrator. Bernstein assumes that the listener has some knowledge about the piece, which works for me—rather than pedagogically explain what each instrument represents in the symphony, he begins by having a “quiz”, which works well as a bit of interactive theatre as well as a nice reminder/explanation for how to interpret the piece. I also found Bernstein’s narration throughout the entire piece engaging and informative. However, the narration is ultimately a garnish in my opinion—the main attraction here is how the orchestra plays the symphony, and I have to say that I think the New York Philharmonic was on their A-game the day they recorded this. Everything is tight and expressive, easily detailing the action while remaining as beautiful, playful, and—when the wolf-like French horns come in—as menacing as ever.
Following the conclusion of Peter and the Wolf, Bernstein continues the narration on the album by giving some background on The Carnival of the Animals and the musicians playing on the album. Bernstein explains that Saint-Saëns intended the piece for amusement and as something that young people could appreciate, so Bernstein arranged for a number of young musicians to play for the album as well, even performers as young as 13. Although the music continues to be quite good in both the quality of composition and play, Bernstein’s narration and introduction of each movement (which are typically only a minute or two long, not counting the narration that prefaces every movement) grew tedious for me. Being largely unfamiliar with The Carnival of the Animals, I appreciated learning more about the symphony and (to a lesser extent) the performers, but I was excited about hearing the music, which was interrupted far too often. As an adult, I would have much rather been able to read about the movements in the CD liner or, if I were attending a performance, in the concert program. However, this is intended as an introduction to classical music for children, who will not have the reading ability or comprehension that I do as an adult. In that respect, I have to give Bernstein credit for reaching his audience at their level.
Ultimately, if you do not have a copy of Peter and the Wolf, this album is worth buying for that alone. Consider The Carnival of the Animals as a bonus for as long as you can appreciate listening to the narration—something that children may be able to appreciate for many years. I have to say that I will be looking for a version of Carnival of the Animals without any narration, and ultimately I think I would like to find an un-narrated recording of Peter and the Wolf as well. However, even if I never find those, I know that I will enjoy listening to this album with Samuel for many years to come, and I highly recommend it for you as well.
Do you enjoy Peter and the Wolf and/or the Carnival of the Animals? If you are familiar with this recording, how do you feel about Bernstein’s narration? What other music did you enjoy as a child, or what music do your own children enjoy?