One of the first serious musical pieces I heard – setting aside Baptist hymns, “Turkey in the Straw,” “Little Toot” by Don Wilson and the Starlighters, and the theme song for the Howdy Doody Show – was Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” I first heard the Disney recording, on a record that came with pictures so you could follow along with the narrator, Sterling Holloway. The music and images were magical. Next, in 1960, came Leonard Bernstein, whose televised “Young People’s Concerts” gently taught a generation to appreciate classical music, and then, in 1978, I discovered and enjoyed David Bowie as the narrator.
Recently, I wondered how many other recordings there are, and I was amazed at the variety. Surely Prokofiev, who wrote the piece in two weeks, couldn’t have had an idea of the piece’s longevity and proliferation. An article by Jeremy Nicholas – “Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf” – was very helpful, and inspired me to create my own list of favorites. So here it is, alphabetically by narrator, with links to excerpts or entire performances where available:
Leonard Bernstein, maestro, teacher, with an authoritative voice for the introduction and a lively, dramatic voice for the narration.
David Bowie, in lighter tones, gives a warm and animated reading with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Hermione Gingold – Nicholas praises her “eccentrically ripe rendering,” and I quite agree; one of the best ever. Well worth hunting for on the Deutsche Grammophon CD with Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic.
Melissa Joan Hart, in character as Clarissa from the Nickelodeon series “Clarissa Explains It All,” with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. Really lovely, especially for young girls just encountering classical music.
Sterling Holloway is the gold standard, my first and favorite rendition.
Boris Karloff – For a man who played Frankenstein’s monster, this is a surprisingly warm and engaging reading, recorded in 1957 and backed by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra.
Wilfred Pickles – Nicholas cites this as a long-time favorite, and I’m totally in agreement; this is an engaging, welcoming version, great for children without being cloying for adults.
Sting – Nicholas gives this one highest marks: “Sting’s involvement is infectious – one really gets the sense of a dad performing for his kids in his modernised, colloquial reading. Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe give arguably the best overall account of the score on disc.”
Dave Van Ronk – Performing with a guitar and a jug band, the legendary folksinger gave us a rendition that is as lovely as it is unlikely.
There are also pleasant versions by others:
Available only on a 1995 EMI CD, Richard Baker is a Nicholas favorite: “The broadcaster and music buff [Baker] had one of the great microphone voices… It’s a real pleasure to listen to a speaker who treats the microphone as an intimate friend and the traditional text with respect, managing to do so without drawing undue attention to himself.”
Actor Richard Briers is joined by David Coram on the organ of Romsey Abbey, in Hampshire, England. The Hammer Films and Lord of the Rings legend Christopher Lee has great pipes. Beatrice Lillie and Sophia Loren tell a good story, and Basil Rathbone, from 1941, one of the earliest recordings, is not half bad, with Leopold Stokowski leading the All-America Orchestra. Of Ralph Richardson, Nicholas writes, “He is clearly a relative in front of whom it would be wise not to misbehave.” Of Cyril Ritchard‘s 1957 recording, Nicholas notes, “Ritchard uses the microphone intimately, a lovely reading,” although I found the actor so much better as Captain Hook.
Several recordings are notable for their novelty. In 1965, Sean Connery had just four hours to record the narrative in a London hotel suite before returning to Greece where he was filming Thunderball.
In 1987, Paul Hogan, the actor famous for “Crocodile Dundee,” set his version in the Australian Outback. It was withdrawn soon after its release due to unflattering portrayals of aboriginal people.
Recording in 1950 with the Boston Symphony, Eleanor Roosevelt created easily the most declamatory of all versions. Nicholas said she sounded “as if she were addressing the Daughters of the American Revolution,” and I thought that a bit unkind. But, in fact, she really does sound like she’s speaking from a podium and hoping to be heard in the last row, while smiling.
The late, lamented Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band gave a nice reading in a 1975 rock opera version with Manfred Mann, Garry Moore, Garry Brooker, Phil Collins, Brian Eno, Bill Brufford, Stephane Grapelli, Julie Driscoll and Alvin Lee.
There are many painful versions available, although that’s so subjective that I will omit names, with one exception, because I cannot resist. Nicholas describes André Previn’s performance as “so laid-back that it borders on the dismissive. Intoned in a colorless voice, he appears to be speaking in a catacomb.” Not everyone is cut out to perform “Peter & the Wolf.”
* * *
My thanks to Jeremy Nicholas for his “Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf – which recording is best?” which first appeared in Gramophone magazine in 2011. It’s a more erudite appreciation than mine, and I highly recommend it to you.
Performances available on iTunes: Leonard Bernstein, David Bowie, Sean Connery, Dame Edna Everage, Sir John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Melissa Joan Hart, Lenny Henry, Sterling Holloway, Captain Kangaroo, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Beatrice Lillie, Sophia Loren, Dudley Moore, Jeremy Nicholas, Andre Previn, Lina Prokofiev, Oleg & Gariel Prokofiev, Sting, Sharon Stone, Tim V, and Yadu.