Prokofiev / Peter & The Wolf / Bernstein – What to Listen For

More Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

More Peter & The Wolf / Bernstein

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of the album.

What makes this an especially good Peter and the Wolf? The timbre of the solo instruments — bassoon, oboe, flute — each of which serves to represent a character in the story. Shockingly lifelike, the tonality is unerringly Right On The Money (ROTM) throughout. That makes this pressing both a superb Demo Disc as well as a top quality Audio Test Disc.   

When you hear the bassoon or clarinet or oboe playing their solo parts on this record you should be knocked out by how real those instruments sound. Man, this is analog at its best. 

Your Guard Against Phony Hi-Fi sound

As you make changes to your setup, equipment, room, electrical system and who knows what else (we’re hoping you do; it can make all your Hot Stampers even hotter), this record will show you the progress you are making, as well as keep you on the straight and narrow. If you know anything about audio, you know that it’s easy to go off the rails. Happens to the best of us. That’s why it’s essential to have records like this one handy, to help you get back on the right path should some hi-fi-ish sounding something make itself appealing to you in an unguarded moment (to mix yet another metaphor).

The Audio Advice section of the site has much more on the subject for those of you who may be interested.

Side One – Peter & The Wolf

Rich and Tubey Magical in the best way, with the narrator sounding breathy and natural (although he’s not recorded all that well. The orchestra is; he’s not).

The sound is tonally correct from top to bottom, and for Columbia that is quite an achievement.

Side Two – The Nutcracker

We do not care for the sound of this recording of the Nutcracker Suite and have not heard any Columbia pressing of the music that deserves to be awarded even the lowliest Hot Stamper designation. Like most Columbia records, it’s awful or, at best, passable. Who has time for such mediocrity?

You may have seen this on the site:

Columbia classical recordings have a tendency to be shrill, upper-midrangy, glary and hard sounding. The upper mids are usually nasally and pinched; the strings and brass will screech and blare at you in the worst way. If Columbia’s goal was to drive the audiophile classical music lover screaming from the room, give them credit, they succeeded brilliantly more often than not.

Occasionally, however, they fail. When they do we call those pressings Hot Stampers.

Indeed, this side one is very, very hot, and side two, predictably, is the same old Columbia story.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Prokofiev – Peter and the Wolf

Side Two

Tchaikovsky – The Nutcracker Suite

Description by Alexander Carpenter

Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, for narrator and orchestra, was a commission from the Central Children’s Theatre in 1936. The composer himself wrote the text, which tells the story of a young boy who manages to capture a vicious wolf. The piece is remarkable for many reasons, but perhaps most notably for its didactic scoring, designed by Prokofiev to introduce children to the sounds of orchestral instruments.

The instrumentation is also important for the narration, since each character in the story is represented by a different instrument: the bird by a flute, the duck by an oboe, the grandfather by a bassoon, the cat by a clarinet, the wolf by three horns, and Peter by the strings. The entire work was composed in a single week (in piano score), and the orchestration was completed less than two weeks later.

Prokofiev’s writing is intentionally direct and transparent, reflecting his desire to make the work enjoyable for children. His musical characterizations are broad and straightforward, from the delicate birdsong of the flute, to the thunderous kettledrums portraying the hunters’ rifle shots.

The work is in three sections, loosely following a kind of sonata form. The opening section introduces the main characters, preparing the audience for the action to come. The middle section–the “development”–contains the most exciting action, beginning with the appearance of the wolf, his eating of the duck, and his eventual capture by young Peter. The final scene acts as a recapitulation, as the principal characters return for a final parade; here, Peter’s opening theme returns transformed into a triumphant march.

Like most of Prokofiev’s music, Peter and the Wolf features adroit thematic integration and development. Peter’s theme, the dominant theme of the work, is stated at the beginning of the piece, and is then combined with other subordinate themes. This thematic blending is also closely tied to the dramatic action, underscoring developments in the story.

Harmonically, the piece begins and ends in C major, but contains many sudden harmonic shifts, another important aspect of Prokofiev’s style. Formally, though the piece does follow a loose sonata structure, it is by no means a case of textbook form; themes develop freely, harmonic direction is dictated largely by the action, and characterization assumes priority over any kind of academic musical construction.

Peter and the Wolf has long been a classic, loved by children for its vivid storytelling, and by adults for its gentle sense of humor and good-natured tunefulness. It was composed 22 years after a similar piece, The Ugly Duckling of 1914-1915, which also features humorous musical sketches of animals. It also bears comparison with Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which also seeks to acquaint children with the sounds of the symphony.