|Collecting charity monies can be accomplished in various ways. Until the audience got overexposed to the shocking images of starving children, ill-treated cats and dogs and other dastardly evidence of human nature gone awry, large-scale television show drives worked well in Holland. Back in 1962, the first such marathon show lasted 23 hours and raised the stunning amount of 23 million guilders - an incredible sum when you consider that the Dutch population of that time was at the order of 11 million souls suffering the legendary Dutch propensity for penny pinching. Hey, we even invented copper-wire when two Dutchies were fighting over a cent. The 23 million minus production costs raised were used to erect an entire village perfectly adapted to house 300 physically challenged Dutch.
Raising money on an international scale is more difficult though not impossible. An example is the project that originated with the Russian National Orchestra and conductor Kent Nagano, hoping to raise money for the RNO's children project Magic of Music and a wildlife preservation organization. Magic of Music focuses on children in orphanages and other difficult circumstances, not a small task in today's restructuring of Russia.
The first logical step was turning to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. This aural fairy tale is a great piece of music and was, like Britten's Young Person's Guide, originally penned to introduce young people to the various instruments making up a symphony orchestra. This background limits the piece in length. After all, the attention span of children in Prokofiev's time was probably around 30 minutes, shockingly long actually if compared to today's MTV generation that has devolved to perhaps 30 seconds? In order to flesh out the programme for a full-length presentation, the Russian Art Foundation contracted French composer Jean-Pascal Beintus to write a score that could follow the original Peter and the Wolf as a second part. Walt Kraemer, American radio and television writer, was asked to provide the text. Peter and the Wolf Part II is called Wolf Tracks and picks up where the old story ends, when Peter has become a grandfather himself.
The project now consisted of two pieces of music with voice-over commentary. But who would be its narrators? The concept insisted that they be well-known personages already firmly established with charitable events - Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton and Sophia Loren. Each of them are involved with charitable foundations, former Soviet president Gorbachev running his own Green Cross Foundation trying to bridge the gap between man and nature; Bill Clinton playing his connections to help end the AIDS epidemic; and Sophia busy with numerous children's organizations.
Pentatone Classics' Giel Bessels entered this group of collaborators when the subject of how to record the performance on shiny disc was discussed, with the mastering itself awarded to multichannel DSD wizard Jean-Marie Geijsen to assure that on a technical basis, no road blocks would hamper this project's aims of raising significant funds for its various causes. Which prompts our first critical observations. This laudable project aspires to help so many organizations that even though all proceedings are earmarked for charity, fragmentation is unavoidable. And fragmentation becomes also abundant on the hybrid SACD itself, beginning with the first track, Mikhail Gorbachev's introduction. He speaks Russian although we recall that his English isn't bad at all. This concept forces immediate English translation after each and every Russian sentence by RNO's CEO, Sergei Markov, clearly a chance missed to transcend -- or altogether avoid -- the language problem. With Gorbachev no longer in power, misinterpretation wouldn't have threatened with nuclear holocaust either, come to think of it.
The second English introduction is by Sophia Loren. Here we do wish she spoke Italian. Her beautiful voice from all her movies invites one to sit with eyes closed, listening to her almost singing cadence as she addresses Marcello Mastroianni. Now Peter and the Wolf begins in earnest to become, safe for one puzzling effect, the most extraordinary performance we've ever heard of this piece which, as you well know, has been performed, narrated and recorded by just about anyone imaginable. The incongruity? The opening track begins with real recorded bird song. What happened here? Isn't the originality of Prokofiev's score based on instruments mimicking the animals' voices and personalities? Fortunately, this strange faux-pas merely lasts a few seconds before the RNO takes over and La Loren involves you into the fairy tale. Is there any other recording with a female narrator? Is this the first? A second question arises. How would this performance have sounded if recorded 100% live? As it is, the orchestra was recorded in San Francisco, Sophia's voice added months later in Geneva; another form of fragmentation. Incidentally, Pentatone's website features images of the recording session [use the above link to visit].
After another sandwich of Russian and English, Wolf Tracks commences. The story is weak and no competition for the original, with a wolf letting himself be captured to save his pups - sob, sob. The score itself is mediocre and more appropriate for a documentary - though Bill Clinton's narration, despite the text, is excellent. What else to expect of the 42nd president of the US of A? Mikhail Gorbachev concludes the project in the now anticipated fashion. The final verdict? A hybrid SACD that is well worth the price for the Peter and the Wolf track alone. Its 23:29 minutes are unique and can be played over and over again without tiring. The other tracks will be played once and then left alone. This is not a real waste when you remind yourself how all proceedings and royalties are dedicated to charities. This raises an interesting thought: Contributing to making the world a better place by doing nothing but listening to music? Who woulda thunk.